To avert climate catastrophe, we must look at deforestation drivers

Deforestation from beef and soy shows no signs of lessening, but Malaysian palm oil could offer another path, writes Isabel Schatzschneider.
Photo credits: Adobe Stock

By Isabel Schatzschneider

Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare. Currently working as a Research Associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nüremberg

30 Apr 2021

A recent study published in 'Nature Ecology and Evolution' claims that annual Western consumption costs 3.9 trees per capita. This is worrying; deforestation contributes up to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. As the world approaches the 2027 threshold for dangerous global warming, addressing the drivers of deforestation is impera­tive to averting catastrophe.

Trees, as natural carbon sinks, absorb almost 25 percent of human-generated CO2, including 10 per­cent of the EU's annu­al emissions. However, destroying forests releases these carbon reserves into the atmosphere - accelerating warming.

"While deforestation increases in soy and beef producing regions such as Brazil, have reached a 12-year high, Malaysia has witnessed an annual decrease in deforestation since 2016"

Forests also offer irreplaceable habitats to 80 percent of all land-based species, protecting biodiversity critical to our health. Increased contact with wildlife provides opportunities for novel zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, to spread. Yet deforestation shows no signs of stopping.

WWF recently reported that 166,000 square miles of forest had disappeared between 2004-17. Ac­cording to a CDP study, forestry and agriculture account for more than 80 percent of worldwide deforestation. Beef and soy - the leading drivers of deforestation - are currently responsible for more than two-thirds of Latin American forest loss (and 30 percent of all carbon emissions).

The beef and soy industries are failing to tackle deforestation, lack sustainable certification standards, face little scrutiny from Western governments and oper­ate through notoriously opaque supply chains. Yet the palm oil industry, which has taken major steps towards sustainability, faces an impending 2030 EU boycott.

Worryingly, this de facto ban will increase the production of less sustainable biofuels. As explained by the IUCN, palm oil is incredibly efficient, yielding 35 percent of the global vegetable oil supply on less than 10 percent of allotted oil cropland. According to WWF, alternative vegetable oils such as coconut, soybean, rapeseed or sunflower require between four to ten times the amount of land to produce the same quantity of oil.

Further, banning a commodity means that demand could shift to other regions with less strict envi­ronmental policies. According to the NGO China Dialogue, there is far less demand for certified sustainable oil in India or China compared to the EU. In China, for example, there is no discussion on palm oil sustain­ability, due to lack of environmental awareness among the public.

This makes the immense progress made by countries like Malaysia, towards sustainability and slowing deforestation, even more important. In fact, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification was designed with the EU in mind. It compels plantations to reduce their GHG emissions and is enforced through strict third-party auditing and transparency and sustainability standards. The MSPO certification has been required by law for all oil palm smallfarms and plantations in Malaysia since January 2020.

As of February 2021, almost 90 percent of all plantations were MSPO certified. This is an achieve­ment with real consequences. While deforestation increases in soy and beef producing regions such as Brazil have reached a 12-year high, Malaysia has witnessed an annual decrease in deforestation since 2016, according to the World Resources Institute.

If developed regions, like the EU, collaborated with palm oil­ producing countries to enforce and improve sustainable production then environmental targets could be met on a global scale - a groundbreaking approach to ad­dressing deforestation. Precedents have emerged in some European countries. The UK's Environment Bill requires British businesses to follow due diligence practices that make it illegal to import commodities that have not been produced according to local laws.

This Bill will uncover supply chains and fight deforesta­tion by enforcing new collaborations between producer and importer nations. Another positive example is Switzerland's free trade deal with Indonesia, which includes a sustain­ability clause wherein deforestation­ free and sustainably certified palm oil will benefit from reduced tariffs.

The MSPO offers the EU an op­portunity for more responsible trade and consumption as well as a model for other forest risk commodities. It is up to the EU to take it. 

This article was published as part of the Sustainability First supplement by the Center for Sustainable Palm Oil Studies (CSPO). The full supplement is available on: