The EU’s quest to save the world’s forests

Thanks to a huge outcry from Europeans and close collaboration between all political parties in the Parliament, the bloc now leads the way in developing standards for the protection of forests around the globe
Burnt land next to a palm oil plantation near Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia | Photo: Alamy

By Christophe Hansen

Christophe Hansen (EPP, LU) is rapporteur of the regulation on deforestation-free products

13 Feb 2023

Between 1990 and 2020, a shocking 429m hectares of forest were cut down worldwide. This corresponds to an area larger than the European Union. Each year, the number of trees felled for agricultural purposes grows at a worrying pace.

The destruction of our forests has serious consequences for the environment, as deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for 11 per cent of greenhouse gases. Further, deforestation ruins the livelihoods of vulnerable indigenous communities who depend on the forest ecosystem.

If we do not tackle deforestation, all other efforts to fight climate change and biodiversity loss on an EU level are nothing but a drop in the ocean.

The impact of deforestation on nature and society sparked a huge outcry from EU citizens. The Public Consultation launched by the Commission received more than 1.2m responses, making it the second most popular in the history of the EU.

As rapporteur on this crucial proposal, I was keenly aware of the massive impact this proposal could have on future generations as well as the more immediate disruptive effects it could have on companies, supply chains and consumer prices.

Since EU consumption accounts for about 10 per cent of global deforestation, we needed to lead by example and work towards a balanced outcome that improves the situation on the ground. The key was to avoid legislation that would only greenwash our conscience as European consumers while shifting the problem to other markets and adding massive red tape to corporate operations.

To achieve this outcome, I worked closely with a group of passionate shadow rapporteurs – keeping all political groups on board is the only way Parliament can extract concessions from a more reluctant Council. The objective was to push for legislation that was more ambitious while still being implementable.

Roughly a year after Parliament first started working on this file, the co-legislators came to an agreement. Even though Parliament’s ambitions went way beyond the Council’s mandate, we managed to deliver a strong and ambitious result, which I hope will lead to the development of standards in the protection of forests around the globe and maybe even inspire other economies to follow suit.

This ground-breaking regulation now covers key commodities that are associated with deforestation: soy, cacao, coffee, wood, palm oil, cattle and rubber. The list of products was extended further by adding palm-oil derivatives, printed paper and charcoal. Mandatory due diligence rules should guarantee that EU supply chains are deforestation-free in the future.

Currently, these new rules only apply to forests and unfortunately not to so-called “other wooded lands” like the Cerrado in Brazil, as I had argued for. However, we managed to oblige the Commission to come up with the necessary impact assessment that demonstrates the need and feasibility to do so. One of the most innovative elements of this new law will be the use of satellite technology to collect geolocation data to check the area of production.

One of the most innovative elements of this new law will be the use of satellite technology to collect geolocation data to check the area of production

Finally, we ensured that the rights of indigenous people are effectively protected, as they are our first allies in fighting deforestation, and for the first time in history, we managed to incorporate access to justice into the operative part of the text.

This regulation is only a first step and more must follow. We will now carefully observe how this regulation works on the ground. As ever, a tree is known by its fruit – and implementation will be key. If it works well, I hope that this legislation could become a blueprint to address similar issues in other sectors.

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