EU Regulation on Deforestation: The Case for National Certification Programs

The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification is a model that addresses global deforestation concerns, and one that other countries can follow, argues Robert Hii
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By Robert Hii

Robert Hii is the editor of the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) Watch and a commentator on sustainability and nature conservation for publications such as National Geographic, Global Policy and Huffington Post

16 Dec 2021

Days after COP26, where more than 100-world leaders committed to reverse deforestation, the EU published its long-awaited proposal to help reduce the deforestation footprint of its citizens. This is a crucial commitment since the European Union is responsible for a hefty 16% of global deforestation linked to its imported goods. Moving millions of EU citizens to vote in favour of a new legislation to ensure that the products they consume do not cause deforestation.

The proposal puts the onus on companies to prove that commodities: soy, beef, cocoa, palm oil, coffee and wood products are not a cause of deforestation. To that end, the EU will seek to establish a benchmarking system to help companies identify low, standard, and high-risk areas when sourcing products for EU consumption.

For some, the regulation is seen as major step forward. According to EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU proposal is a ‘ground-breaking’ one. Environmental groups have however criticised the proposal, warning that is has too many loopholes.

NGO criticism of EU Regulation on Deforestation

The WWF and Greenpeace objected to the exclusion of non-forest ecosystems in the proposal. According to them, this results in valuable ecosystems such as savannahs in the Brazilian Cerrado and the wetlands of the Pantanal which continue to be exploited by the soy and cattle industries. WWF’s concerns extended to the “inclusion of a human rights element in the proposal [being] too limited, therefore not effectively protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities”.

FERN went even further, adding that the regulation might clean EU supply chains but that it would do little to stop deforestation because the commodities could still be sold elsewhere. FERN’s argument is that what the EU really needs to do is to assist forested countries and help tackle the root causes of deforestation such as “poor forest governance and unclear land tenure”.

Would certifications help?

Despite the proposal’s shortcomings, as pointed out by the environmental groups, there is content in the EU proposal that deserves their support. The EU proposal has acknowledged NGO criticism of voluntary green schemes, which are not legally binding, in favour of legally binding schemes as an effective measure to curb imported deforestation.

The public consultations that were held for the EU citizens to voice their opinions on the regulation showed strong support for legally binding measures where a majority of the 1.2 million respondents favoured legally binding schemes over voluntary ones. This finding was welcomed by the Malaysian government and the Malaysian palm oil industry which lay claim to being the first global model of a national certification for palm oil.

With 90% of all its palm oil sector certified under the national certification scheme, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) has played a key role in establishing a sustainability certification scheme that meets the local needs for development and the demands of foreign markets for sustainability.

Will the MSPO Perform Well in EU opinions?

Environmental groups are notorious for being long in criticism and short on solutions. As the EU works towards a regulation for deforestation-free imports, other EU stakeholders are making a more realistic case. COCERAL, FEDIOL and FEFAC which collectively represent a key stakeholder in EU agriculture called the proposal a ‘wrong approach’ and re-emphasised their position that deforestation can only be tackled in partnership with producing countries.

This is an age-old struggle between the forces of ecology and economy. In a connected world where policies formed in the EU have a direct impact on countries far from Brussels, the urgent need to find a balance is undisputable in these days of climate change.

The nascent MSPO which has yet to be tested against the demands of foreign environmental groups has proven itself in local situations. Armed with the force of national laws governing environmental protection in Malaysia, its effect has been swift and immediate. Where voluntary schemes merely threaten expulsion from membership, the MSPO has the teeth to threaten a total cessation of business for companies that violate its principles and standards.

This is the model of certification that the EU needs if the Union is to use its influence on protecting forests globally. For once, the concerns of groups like FERN can be addressed in that EU demands for sustainability can contain “leakage”, where countries produce an “EU quality” and a separate quality for the rest of the world. The MSPO as a certification program mandated by Malaysian law would further support the oilseeds trade associations of the EU which have made repeated calls for partnerships with producing countries.

As we head into a new year where the Malaysian government will place the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil scheme as a model for national sustainability alongside its rubber and timber industries. The challenge is not so much in the strength of its certification, it will be whether consumer markets like the EU will support the push for the sustainability of Malaysia’s exports to the EU.

This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group

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