The EU must respond urgently and shut its market to illegal timber once and for all and deliver a fatal blow to the forces driving illegal logging everywhere
Forests are essential for life on Earth. They provide shelter and a livelihood for hundreds of millions of people, are home to a vast diversity of plants, animals and insects, and help us avoid the worst effects of climate change by absorbing and storing massive amounts of carbon dioxide. In 2015, world leaders recognised the crucial role of forests in climate change mitigation and sustainable development, and pledged to halt deforestation by 2020.
Two years on, European policymakers have yet to take action and global deforestation continues at an alarming rate. This month, the European Commission will host a high-level conference on illegal logging and deforestation. But time is running out for the EU to act, and so we call on EU Commission President Juncker and Environment Commissioner Vella to come forward now with proposals to tackle the EU's forest footprint and bring global deforestation to an end.
Up to now, the EU's action on deforestation has focussed primarily on combatting illegal logging and the related trade in timber, with the adoption in 2003 of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade action plan. But even here, as two recent evaluations pointed out, progress is slow and much remains to be done.
According to a recent UNEP-INTERPOL report, illegal logging tops the ranking of environmental crimes, with an estimated annual value of USD 50-152 billion. The situation remains alarming in many parts of the world, including the Congo Basin and the Brazilian Amazon, where the ever-increasing demand for timber, particularly from the EU and China, is fuelling illegal logging and forest degradation. In these two regions the timber trade and bad governance - weak institutions, corruption, and illegal activities - are intertwined and exacerbate the damage caused to forests, biodiversity and the lives of communities living in and around the forests. Many unique tree species such as Mukula and Ipe are being plundered. Even the last remaining ancient European forests in Romania and Poland are threatened by logging, despite EU laws that should protect them.
So, it goes without saying: the EU must respond urgently and shut its market to illegal timber once and for all and deliver a fatal blow to the forces driving illegal logging everywhere. Greenpeace and others recently called on the EU to take specific action.
But it is not just the EU's hunger for timber that is driving forest destruction. Today, 80 per cent of global deforestation is caused by agriculture, with palm oil, soy and beef the three most damaging commodities driving forest clearance. Europe's growing demand for food and biofuels has been fuelling deforestation in recent decades. In Brazil, one of the big exporters of soy and beef to the EU, deforestation is on the rise again. Meanwhile the cultivation of oil palm continues to devastate Indonesia, and now threatens African forests too.
In 2013, the Commission recognised the need for an EU action plan on deforestation. A feasibility study, long delayed, has been promised this summer. Hardly swift or decisive action.
Without EU action to cut deforestation out of supply chains, consumers and NGOs have put pressure directly on companies to act. While a number of companies globally have made commitments to stop deforestation and shift to sustainable sources, these commitments are too few and progress in implementation is slow. Self-regulation simply isn't effective enough to protect the Earth's remaining standing forests from agricultural expansion, avoiding the worst of climate change.
As a major consumer, trade power and a hub of international finance, the EU has a special responsibility to become a deforestation-free economy - to protect our climate, biodiversity and forest peoples. It is high time the EU adopts laws to remove deforestation from its supply chains and to stop financial institutions funding deforestation. It is also crucial that the EU stops using land-based biofuels, which compete with food for agricultural land and are no fix to climate change. Moreover, the EU and its member states must substantially increase their support to developing countries as they take steps to protect forests, implement farming practices based on agro-ecology and work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Protecting forests is not a choice, it is an absolute necessity. International commitments to reverse deforestation have been made, now they must be implemented. As a matter of priority, President Juncker and Commissioner Vella must now set out how the Commission intends to fill the EU legislative gaps in an action plan on deforestation and forest degradation.
Sébastien Risso is Greenpeace's expert on the EU's role in deforestation. He has over 15 years of experience in European public affairs and joined Greenpeace in 2004, working EU action on illegal logging and related trade, the EU biofuels policy and the impact of EU consumption on deforestation. Follow news and comment from Greenpeace @GreenpeaceEU