Last year changed everything, and nothing.
Almost overnight our lives were upended: businesses and economies ground to a halt, movement was constrained, and physical contact with others curbed. Yet our greatest challenge – the global environmental crisis - remained the same.
In fact, COVID-19 could be seen as a warning of the failure to act on the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse; a portent for far greater, more enduring global upheaval.But the link between environmental destruction and COVID is more than just symbolic. Scientists are warning us that deforestation is not only driving global heating and extinction; it is also causing the emergence of deadly new pathogens.
In a year of unfathomable disruption, it is therefore heartening that forests continued to rise up the agenda: moving from what, a few years ago was largely a niche topic, into the mainstream of political debate in Europe and beyond. We now see an unprecedented number of forest-related files in Brussels and European countries, and high-level politicians have never talked so much about forests.
But now we need to ensure this heightened interest moves from rhetoric — nice-sounding strategy documents abound, but most money continues to flow towards business as usual (see: the Common Agricultural Policy) – to action. With a number of key forest laws being decided by the EU and the UK in 2021, the opportunities have rarely been greater:
Forests will be a key focus of both the UN Biodiversity Conference to be held in Kunming, China in May, and the 26th UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, UK in November. The biodiversity conference aims to set global targets for biodiversity protection. Such targets must be ambitious and linked to the strengthening of forest community land rights. We hope that the UK uses their chairing of the climate conference to mobilise action on global deforestation from other major consumer countries like China, the US and India.
European forests are in a precarious state: logging is driving biodiversity loss in protected forests. A major driver is burning woody biomass for energy and power, and the state subsidies which incentivise it. In the second quarter of 2021, the EU is planning to amend the policy hugely responsible for this destruction, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The EU will also revise the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation and present new binding Nature Restoration Targets at the end of 2021, aiming to encourage EU Member States to protect and restore their forests. But initiatives to improve European forests’ health will make little difference if incentives to burn them remain. European policy-makers must grasp the opportunity to remove these incentives.
- For seven years, Fern has been pushing for laws to end Europe’s complicity in the severe deforestation and human rights abuses caused by the agricultural products we consume - such as palm oil, soy and beef. Now, there’s finally an appetite for change from the EU institutions, Member States and major companies. In the second quarter of 2021, the European Commission will present a law aimed at tackling this issue. This law must ensure products coming into the EU are free from deforestation, ecosystem destruction and human rights abuses—and be accompanied by partnerships to tackle drivers of deforestation within producer countries.
In 2021 the UK will also put forward a law to tackle deforestation from imported commodities. This will likely come before the EU’s similar legislation, so it is important that the UK sets a high bar. Products coming into the UK should comply not only with domestic law in producer countries, but also with global standards on human rights and deforestation. Legal responsibility should extend to UK financial institutions.
The free trade deal that the EU has agreed with the Mercosur bloc of nations is scheduled to be ratified in 2021. There are huge concerns over the damage the deal could cause to forests and human rights in Brazil and other Mercosur nations. The European Commission is saying they will negotiate a political declaration to protect forests, but this declaration would not be part of the main trade deal and would not have any teeth – making it nothing more than greenwashing. It is important the Mercosur deal – and all other EU trade deals—contain enforceable conditions requiring products coming into the EU to be free from deforestation and human rights abuses—and that trade sanctions are applied if they are not.
The EU and cocoa producing countries Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire will begin a new dialogue on cocoa in 2021. This aims to tackle the deforestation, poverty and child labour that are endemic in cocoa production. To be effective, the dialogue must focus on policy and governance changes in both the EU and producer countries, and ensure civil society and farmers in producer countries have a chance to influence discussions. If done well, the EU cocoa dialogue could serve as a blueprint for partnerships with producer countries of other major forest risk commodities, like palm oil and soy.
We will do our best to make the most of these opportunities in 2021. We hope that politicians of all persuasions respond to the gravity of the moment, by making choices that protect what remains of the world’s forests and begin to restore what has already been lost.