Government risks undermining own deforestation goals
Ahead of International Forests Day (21 March) UK environment and human rights organisations are warning that the UK government risks sanctioning illegal deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere unless it strengthens new regulations being introduced under the Environment Act.
Without greater ambition, the UK will still be responsible for an area of rainforest the size of Berlin being lost by 2030, the NGOs say in an open letter to the Secretary of State and Minister for the Environment. This would devastate wildlife, fuel climate breakdown and harm Indigenous peoples and other forest communities.
Government data shows the UK’s global deforestation footprint is primarily caused by land being cleared to make way for cattle ranching, palm oil, soy, cocoa, coffee, rubber and maize. These are known as ‘forest-risk commodities’.
The government consultation on implementing the new regulations proposed introducing due diligence requirements for just two forest-risk commodities in the first two years, taking up to five years to include more than two. Proposals also look set to exempt all but large companies, ignoring the cumulative impact on deforestation from smaller and medium sized businesses.
Eleven leading environment and human rights organisations are urging the government to ensure that the legislation includes the seven commodities most responsible for driving deforestation, that all companies are covered, regardless of size, and that these requirements come into force within 12 months of the legislation taking effect.
They point out that many UK businesses have already made commitments to go further than the legislation requires, seeking to eliminate all deforestation from their supply chains by 2030.
Last week almost 35,000 individuals added their voice to the NGOs’ call, submitting online responses to the government consultation.
At COP26 the UK government pushed for global action on deforestation, launching the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, pledging to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.
Hugh Knowles, Co-Executive Director at Friends of the Earth, said:
“The government has made bold promises on the international stage to halt global deforestation, yet its own laws look set to be too slow and weak to deliver the impact needed to curb the UK’s role.
“The public have made it clear they want to see forests protected, yet these laws risk UK citizens unwittingly contributing to illegal deforestation for years to come through, for example, the consumption of products from meat to chocolate.
“The government must match its rhetoric with action and implement the strongest possible laws, prioritising measures that match the urgency and scale of the climate and ecological crises, rather than what is pragmatic for lagging businesses.”
Kate Norgrove, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF, said:
“The world’s forests are not just precious habitats, but our best ally in the fight against climate change and our greatest chance to avoid future pandemics. Despite their vast importance, the UK Government’s proposals on due diligence go nowhere near far enough to eradicate deforestation and habitat destruction from UK supply chains.
“We need to see new regulations applied immediately to all products that carry high deforestation risk, from the coffee sold on our supermarket shelves to the soy feeding our livestock. And the rules must apply to every business, of any size, working in these high risk supply chains. But this can’t happen without an independent and properly-resourced regulatory body with real powers to take deforestation out of all products sold in the UK.”
The letter also says it is critical that companies are required to ensure traceability in their supply chains, and report transparently on the due diligence measures taken and potential risks - and that the government empowers and resources the relevant authorities to effectively monitor and enforce the legislation.
- The NGOs signing the letter are: CAFOD, ClientEarth, Earthsight, Environmental Investigation Agency, Environmental Justice Foundation, Fern, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales, Northern Ireland), Global Canopy, Global Witness, Greenpeace UK, WWF UK.
- In 2018 international trade was associated with 1.1 million hectares of tropical deforestation (Pendrill, 2022). The commodities with the largest associated tropical deforestation risk are oil palm (33%), cattle (26%), soy (20%), coffee (5%), rubber (3%), maize (3%), cocoa (2%).
- UK demand for forest-risk commodities:
UK government data shows that UK imports of seven commodities had a combined footprint of 20,324 hectares in 2017
Cattle: 7,372 ha Palm oil: 5,496 ha Soy: 3,084 ha Maize: 1,809 ha Coffee: 1,401 ha Cocoa: 679 ha Rubber: 483 ha
2017 tropical deforestation risk associated with UK consumption of key commodities (JNCC)
- On average 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) were emitted each year between 2011 and 2018, to produce just four of the commodities imported to the UK (cocoa, palm oil, rubber and soy).
- It is estimated that over 2,800 species, already under threat from extinction, could have been affected by the negative impacts associated with the production of these commodities. (Source: WWF & RSPB Riskier Business, 2020)
- Timber is not covered in the Environment Act deforestation proposals because it is separately addressed in the UK Timber Regulations.