The EU and tropical deforestation

Tropical deforestation is linked to food and animal feed consumed in the EU. We read 1,141 proposals addressing this problem - so you don't have to.

Roundtable discussions can also be adapted to the relevant areas or regions, increasing the likelihood of local support for the initiatives.

The EU is a significant contributor to tropical deforestation – but it doesn’t have to be this way. We analysed more than 1,000 policy proposals for how the EU can reduce such harm, assessing the balance between the potential impacts of a policy and political feasibility, to provide a clear roadmap for the future.

More than half of tropical deforestation is linked to production of food and animal feed, such as palm oil, soybeans, wood products, cocoa and coffee – all goods which the EU imports in vast quantities.

The issue is high on the agenda, with the EU planning to present legislative proposals this year for reducing deforestation caused by European consumption. The question has been relevant for a long time, but something political is now starting to happen. The question is, what can the EU actually do?

Politically

We can provide some answers after mapping a total of 1,141 different proposals originating from private companies, focus groups, think tanks, research reports, and other sources and grouping them down to 86 unique ideas.

Our research reveals there are reasons for optimism – there are powerful measures which enjoy strong support among varied stakeholders. Of the ones we mapped, two very promising ideas in particular present themselves.

The first is to make importers of commodities also bear responsibility for what happens in the resulting supply chains, carrying out the requisite due diligence.

If it turns out that one of the importing companies' suppliers has products that contribute to deforestation, the company would be held responsible.

This might sound tough, but examples from France and England involving similar systems already show that this is a credible and feasible system to implement – both politically and practically.

Craft

For due diligence to have an impact, it must be carefully designed with regards to which companies are affected by the requirements, and which sanctions and liability options exist.

Our survey also reveals that this is by far the most widely proposed measure, enjoying broad support from many different types of actors.

The other key action is roundtable discussions with different stakeholders – gathering companies, organisations, and politicians for joint talks regarding possible measures.

The 2006 Amazon Soy Moratorium, when actors including Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature gathered with producers and exporters of soy to agree to a cessation of the trade in certain badly hit areas of the Amazon, is a prime example of this.

And because this type of action is not just a high-level legislative issue, it also easier to get acceptance and support for, since all directly involved parties can help craft and design the measures from the beginning.

Regulations

Roundtable discussions can also be adapted to the relevant areas or regions, increasing the likelihood of local support for the initiatives.

There is always a trade-off between impact and feasibility. Eco-labelling, aiming to influence consumers’ purchasing habits, is a good example of a measure that is easy to enact, but has limited impact on deforestation.

The intent is good, but research shows that it does not have an effect significant enough to affect production itself. Unsurprisingly, the tougher the proposals, in general the more difficult it is to get the political support.

A key concern with any of these measures is the interplay between impact and feasibility. Combinations of complementary measures, to make the stricter regulations practical, are essential here.

Tropical

Trade regulations on their own, for example, risk hitting poorer producing countries harder, and need therefore to be combined with targeted aid for more sustainable production – allowing farmers to increase yields without having to resort to deforestation.

This also reduces the risk of goods that are produced on deforested land simply being sold in markets other than the EU. If the effect is simply that products from newly deforested land are sold to other countries, while the EU gets the ‘good’ products, that is not a long-term solution.

The EU must ensure therefore that the measures introduced are combined with those which contribute to an overall transition to sustainable land use in producing countries.

At a general level, we suggest three essential principles that the EU needs to follow, if it is serious about reducing its impact on tropical deforestation.

Toothless

First, enact measures that actually are able to bring about change. Second, use a range of measures, combining different tools and instruments to contribute to reduced deforestation on a systemic level.

Finally, ensure the direct involvement of actors at all levels of the supply chain in particularly important regions, expanding and broadening the measures over time.

We hope this research can serve as a roadmap for policy makers, NGOs, industries, and other stakeholders working on addressing the EU's deforestation footprint.

With at least 86 unique alternatives, there is a wide range of opportunities to address the problem – very few of these are political non-starters or toothless proposals. The EU has a real chance for change.

These Authors

Simon Bager is a PhD candidate at UCLouvain and an MSCA fellow at COUPLED.

Martin Persson is an associate professor of physical resource theory at Chalmers University of Technology.

The full study Eighty-six EU policy options for reducing imported deforestation is available open-access in the journal One Earth.

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