MEPs quiz Virginijus Sinkevičius on new EU deforestation proposals

Legally binding rules to curb deforestation have been on European Parliament’s wish list for some time, and ENVI committee members duly welcomed the Commission’s proposal.
Environment, Oceans and Fisheries commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius | Source: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

19 Nov 2021

A day after the European Commission announced three new European Green Deal initiatives, MEPs from the European Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) had the chance to talk about one of them with Environment, Oceans and Fisheries commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, on Thursday.

The “proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products” aims to reduce the EU’s contribution to global deforestation and forest degradation.

The list of imported products and commodities that potentially do so and are recognised as drivers of these processes includes many that are considered indispensable. In its proposal, the European Commission decided to limit theirs to the six most important ones - according to their impact study: soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa and coffee.

“The deforestation and waste shipment regulations we are putting on the table are the most ambitious legislative attempts to tackle these issues worldwide ever” Environment, Oceans and Fisheries commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius

Once the regulation is adopted, companies wanting to place them on the EU market would have to follow due diligence rules to prove that they do not contribute to deforestation and forest degradation.

The other two initiatives – on waste shipment and soil protection – will see their first airing in Parliament at a later stage, but Commissioner Sinkevičius did mention them in his introductory remarks briefly, as they are all meant to be ground-breaking.

As the commissioner put in a press release on Wednesday: “The deforestation and waste shipment regulations we are putting on the table are the most ambitious legislative attempts to tackle these issues worldwide ever”, and the EU soil strategy aims to “grant the same level of protection as water, the marine environment and air.”

Legally binding rules to curb deforestation had been on Parliament’s wish list for some time, and ENVI committee members duly welcomed the Commission’s proposal.

Most unreservedly so German Christian Democrat Hildegard Bentele the first member to take the floor, who not only thanked but congratulated Sinkevičius: “You have clearly listened very carefully to what we have said in Parliament… what we have now is on the whole a good and neutral, risk-based approach”.

Bentele singled out various praiseworthy aspects from her EPP group’s perspective, notably the absence of a civil liability clause and the limiting of the list of commodities to six.

In the latter, however, she proved to be alone. Nearly every other legislator found the list to be incomplete, with rubber and maize cited as the two most obviously lacking by ENVI members.

“You have clearly listened very carefully to what we have said in Parliament… what we have now is on the whole a good and neutral, risk-based approach” Hildegard Bentele MEP

For the S&D Group, ENVI vice-chair César Luena added four more concerns which were then to be taken up again in later interventions.

“We know that there is EU financing of monocultures that often destroy forests. Nothing is said about that here”, the Spanish Socialist commented.

He also wondered why only forests were covered when other types of landscapes were equally threatened and equally important to the environment.

Concerning exporting countries, the proposal distinguishes between “high risk” and “low risk” ones, with the former requiring closer scrutiny.

However, Luena did not find that useful, and was seconded by the Greens/EFA Group’s Marie Toussaint who named five areas of improvement for the regulation herself. On this one she maintained that “it is important that vigilance is applied to all countries, whether ‘low’ or ‘high’ risk. The methodology should be specified more clearly here.”

Another common concern for both Group’s was human rights, most notably with respect of the treatment and situation of indigenous peoples in South America.

The proposal failed to include sufficient provisions to take them into account, as not only the Left Group’s Anja Hasenkamp (NL) agreed, but also the ENVI committee rapporteur on this legislation, Delara Burkhardt.

The German Social Democrat also added another argument for the critics of the proposal’s compact commodities list:

“I have been contacted by the scientists on whose research the Commission based its proposals, and they told me that their findings had been partly misinterpreted. The current data does not support the conclusion that rubber and maize should not be included in the list.”

A particular regional worry was raised by Renew Group’s Nils Torvalds, concerning certain definitions the proposal applies to different kinds of forests, including one that states that forests containing only one or two species of trees are considered a plantation.

The Swedish Finn explained:

“In some parts of Northern Europe you have large areas of forest consisting of two species of trees which would be a plantation in your definition, but in mine it is a wild forest”,

He went on to recommend some near his home in Finland to the commissioner. “They are very nice in September; you should go there one time”.

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Agriculture & Food
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