Emerging ‘Brussels moment’ in tackling deforestation?

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow leaders of over 140 countries signed up with great fanfare to a Declaration on Forests and Land Use and pledged to strengthen efforts to conserve and restore forests. Pledges are all well and good. The big question is: How? 

This decade is the make it or break it for humanity. Biodiversity crisis and climate crisis are with us and the structural transformations that have been initiated need speeding up. Greta Thunberg was the most unembellished. The COP26 has been a “two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.

Meat and dairy production is particularly land-intensive. They bear a notable burden on forested land conversion. And here it seems change is happening the slowest. Agricultural policies are lagging in biodiversity and climate actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contradiction between the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which looks set to be a missed opportunity to truly transform EU agriculture, and the EU Farm2Fork strategy that still seeks to guide national CAP plans to a more sustainable path. 

However, it needs to be said that the EU with its ”Fit for 55” package stands out. It is about the ”how”, and not merely about an abstract target year to reach climate neutrality. Now it is high time for realistic, explicit means and milestones for reaching the set targets. Starting with our unsustainable system of food production, which is a major threat to the world’s forests. 

To fight global deforestation and biodiversity loss, the EU has to take a close look at responsible consumption and production. Under the Green Deal, alongside the Fit for 55 package, the EU is in the process of designing legislation on all companies that operate in the EU internal market. 

 The EU has to take a close look at responsible consumption and production.

The EU Commission is expected to give in December a Proposal on Sustainable Corporate Governance, including mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence for companies. It is expected to be firmly anchored in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were adopted unanimously a decade ago at the UN. This piece of legislation seeks to ensure that companies and their entire global value chains are free of adverse impacts on human rights, labor rights, and the environment.

At the same time the Commission is this week expected to propose legislation on deforestation regulation on forest risk commodities. Companies will have the obligation to ensure that the products imported into the EU and placed on the EU market have been sustainably produced. 

While talking about deforestation and biodiversity loss, it is crucial to bear in mind that sustainability is an integrated concept. And human rights are an inseparable part of environmental sustainability. 

Land rights, and especially the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples is a fundamental principle that has to be respected. It is crucial to abide by the internationally agreed human rights standards. Often national standards are far lower or insufficient. 

Looking at the demand side drivers of deforestation is long overdue and crucial. However, producer countries will need support and assistance in tackling deforestation and preserving natural forests. They are under increasing pressure of commodity demand. Focusing only on value chains leading to EU consumption will not suffice. 

The EU has gathered great experience through the innovative FLEGT VPA mechanism. The Voluntary Partnership Agreements between the EU and timber-producing countries seek to en­sure that timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources. VPA agreements have been instrumental in tackling issues of forest governance towards ensuring the legality of wood production. Good governance is the foundation for improving sustainability. Issues such as corruption are not solved overnight but need persistent and long-term work. 

To truly make progress in the fight against deforestation, again, an integrated approach is needed. Transparency is essential, and so is the need to exit the silos in decision making. EU Development Cooperation instruments need to accompany the forthcoming mandatory due diligence legislation and the specific deforestation regulation on forest risk commodities. Otherwise companies will simply exit countries where the risks are great.

The EU Multistakeholder platform on sustainable cocoa, convened by several EU Commissioners, is a pilot project that brings around the same table all actors along the cocoa value chain, from producer country governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to local and European civil society, cocoa workers and chocolate companies. This is something to be replicated for value chains of all commodities with high sustainability risks.

Global deforestation can only be solved in global cooperation. The ongoing EU developments have the potential for a true ‘Brussels moment’. In other words, a step towards global rules on sustainable business and deforestation-free value chains.