This week Ursula von der Leyen signalled the EU’s desire to lead the world in the fight against global deforestation. But if the key drivers of deforestation aren’t addressed, progress will remain limited.
Until recently, European Union policies to protect forests and biodiversity were a niche concern, preoccupying few outside the world of green politics.
But with increasing awareness that forests are a key natural defence in the climate emergency, and consumers’ growing realisation that their supermarket shelves are laden with goods which destroy forests, forest protection is being talked about in EU corridors of power more than ever.
Further evidence of this came on Monday, when the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined a bleak vision of the future if we fail to act. Speaking at the One Planet Summit in Paris, she described a world of declining physical and mental health; of more poverty, wars and pandemics.
“When we lose forests, we don't 'just' lose green space or natural habitat,” she said. “We lose a key ally in our fight against climate change. When temperatures rise and nature disappears, we suffer more natural disasters and zoonotic diseases… if we don't urgently act to protect our nature, we may already be at the beginning of an era of pandemics. But we can do something about it. It needs concerted global action and local sustainable development.”
In a speech of just over 900 words, von der Leyen outlined her ambitions for the road ahead. Much of this was laudable: the first time we have seen such a detailed vision for forests from a European Commission president. But there were areas of potential concern.
Von der Leyen’s pledge to protect 30% of land and sea in Europe is praiseworthy. The latest alarming research shows that Europe retains less than 1% of its primary forests, and civil society groups in Romania, Slovakia and Poland, where primary forests are in peril from industrial and illegal logging, are calling for strict protections.
But a note of caution about applying this to the rest of the world: rigorous protections can work in Europe, but in tropical forested countries where forest communities lack rights to land, strict protection has all too often led to violence against local communities. By contrast, evidence shows that recognising Indigenous and forest communities’ rights is the best way to ensure forests are protected in the long run. When negotiating global nature protection goals at the upcoming UN biodiversity summit, the EU must ensure that forest community land rights are respected. Similarly, EU support for restoration initiatives in the Global South could cause harm unless they place the recognition of community rights—and the restoration of forest health and biodiversity—at the centre.
Her speech also contained a reference to the EU’s commitment (in its biodiversity strategy) to plant 3 billion trees in the EU by 2030. Historically, tree planting schemes have tended towards managed monoculture plantations, which have little benefit for the climate or biodiversity. Greater benefits can be achieved by restoring our existing degraded forests. What’s more, planting a spectacular number of trees will make little difference if we don’t stop the incentives that currently lead to them being razed, particularly the Renewable Energy Directive, which encourages burning wood for energy.
Tackling the impacts of consumption
Von der Leyen’s reiteration of the EU commitment to propose “new legislation [this year] to minimise the risk of products linked to global deforestation being placed on the EU market” was welcome (and something that Fern has called for, for seven years). This is a potential game-changer in ending the EU’s complicity in global deforestation. It’s essential that any legislation includes not only deforestation, but human rights, since – as seen most recently in Brazil—land grabs are intimately linked to deforestation. The legislation must contain sufficient enforcement measures to ensure it works. And it will not work on its own - it must be accompanied by partnerships with producer countries to tackle the supply side drivers of deforestation.
The President’s statement “it is our duty to ensure that our Single Market does not drive deforestation in local communities in other parts of the world” omitted, perhaps significantly, any reference to the role that EU free trade agreements play in this. The Mercosur deal (with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) is the most eye-catching example, but across the board, the raft of deals the EU has signed in recent years lack enforceable provisions to stop them fuelling deforestation and rights abuses. This needs to change.
President von der Leyen’s speech is a watershed in the EU’s commitment to protect forests: this is the first time that a Commission President has spoken so extensively and in such detail about deforestation, and an unequivocal sign of the EU’s desire to be the global leader on deforestation.
But for the President’s vision to be realised, it must focus not only on headline-grabbing goals, but on tackling the major drivers of forest loss – in particular EU trade policy, EU bioenergy policy, and the fragility of community rights over forest land. If these issues are ignored, we can plant all the trees we want, but the forests around us will keep burning.