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What to expect when you’re forest campaigning: Upcoming EU Forest policy developments

14 juin 2021

Greta Thunberg standing on a clearcut in central Sweden, to draw attention to Sweden's unsustainable forest management model. Public pressure around the harmful impacts of bioenergy is growing as the EU recasts its Renewable Energy Directive this year.

Julia Christian, Fern’s host of the Forest Movement Europe 

If it weren’t for the pandemic, this week would have seen forest activists from across Europe getting together in southern France to celebrate 30+ years of the Forest Movement Europe (FME). The annual FME meeting is an opportunity to meet new people, catch up with old colleagues, challenge each other and agree strategies for protecting and restoring forests. 

Each year Fern uses the opportunity to present what is happening in the EU forest policy world, focussing on the opportunities and threats that forest NGOs should know about. In lieu of such a meeting, I thought I would outline the issues we should watch out for in a blog. 

Europe is having a heated debate over biomass and the future of European forests. Things are coming to a head with the review of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED)—coming two years earlier than expected –which will look amongst other things at whether to eliminate renewables subsidies for bioenergy due to its harmful impact on forests. The European Commission will publish its proposal for the revised RED on 14 July, after which it will go to the European Parliament and Member States. 

So how do we think things will turn out? On the one hand, signs are not good: the logging industry (via their EU mouthpieces, Sweden and Finland) successfully lobbied to ensure that the EU’s Sustainable Finance Taxonomy criteria for bioenergy - the policy that defines what is considered “green” investment — are no stronger than the (weak) RED sustainability criteria. On the other hand, public outcry about the harmful effects of bioenergy is mounting. The environment ministers of Finland and Sweden recently publicly broke ranks with their national governments’ strongly pro-bioenergy position. And the European Parliament demanded, on 8 June, that the new RED be aligned with the EU biodiversity strategy. 

Another positive development is movements within the EU Commission to increase its level of scrutiny over European forests, via an updated EU Forest Strategy. The Commission is currently mulling over various tools to increase oversight of how Member States manage their forests. The finished Forest Strategy will be published 20 July. 

The Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation is also being revised, with the Commission to publish its proposal on 14 July. It looks like the regulation may become more ambitious with simpler accounting rules, which would make it harder for Member States to hide decreases in the forest carbon sink. The revised LULUCF Regulation might therefore become a useful tool to discourage European countries from liquidating their forest carbon sinks. 

The EU is also considering initiatives to restore European forests such as developing a proposed Restoration Law, to be published at the end of 2021. NGOs are concerned that the law’s target is not ambitious enough, and only considers protected forests, shying away from biodiversity targets for managed forests. The Commission says it needs more time to set such targets—but this data already exists at Member State level, so the Commission need just request that data in the restoration law. The Commission will also come out with new thinking on carbon farming and carbon removal certification, via a white paper to be published in December 2021. 

Turning to tropical forests, the major new piece of policy is a new regulation to tackle deforestation caused by imported commodities like soy, beef, leather, palm oil, rubber and cocoa. The European Commission was meant to publish a draft of this regulatory proposal in June, but this has been delayed to autumn 2021. NGOs urge against delays as agriculture-driven destruction continues apace in countries like Brazil and Cameroon. NGOs are also worried that, from latest news shared by the Commission, the proposal will not require companies to respect community land rights, nor cover the finance sector and other ecosystems other than forests. The best way to stop deforestation is to recognise and protect community rights to land – and deforestation often happens at the same time as land rights violations in tropical countries. The regulation must therefore require companies to identify and tackle both problems at once. The Commission needs a stronger strategy and plan of action for how to use the regulation to engage with producer countries to tackle governance problems that are driving deforestation. Without this, the new regulation will simply clean EU supply chains whilst “dirty” production in producer countries continues and is consumed elsewhere. The only exception is cocoa, where the EU has commenced a dialogue with the major cocoa-producing countries, but it is not yet clear what the outcome will be. Finally, the Commission needs urgently to start engaging with other consumer countries like the US, the UK, China and India. 

A weakening of the EU’s ambition to engage with tropical forest countries is also reflected in recent developments on the Forest Law, Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) policy, the EU’s flagship initiative to deal with illegal timber. The European Commission has conducted a Fitness Check of FLEGT and has shared preliminary findings that recommend abandoning FLEGT licenses, which allow timber-producing countries to guarantee their timber is legal and gain automatic access to the EU market. In recent comments the Commission also recognised the important gains made in forest governance due to the FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) that result in FLEGT licenses, and said they want to continue these. Sadly, they do not seem to recognise that the gains were only possible because the promise of FLEGT licenses lay at the end. Forest NGOs in VPA countries and Europe have written to the EU to complain about this shifting of the goalposts and the negative impacts this would have on their battle to tackle illegal logging. 

The EU is currently finalising the programming for its new long-term budget (NDICI). Financial allocations for climate and biodiversity will be announced in the coming months, including funds to support tropical countries to protect, restore and govern their forests. It is important this funding is sufficient, and that forest protection and restoration is done with respect to community rights. 

On trade policy, the controversy continues around the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which several EU Member States now refuse to approve because of concerns around deforestation in Brazil. Member States are waiting to see what happens this summer—fire season—in Brazil, and if the increased deforestation rates of the past two years repeat themselves. Member States say they will not approve the Mercosur deal until the situation improves. However, NGOs say the deal should not be signed at all in its current form: even if the situation momentarily improves this year, once the deal is signed there is nothing to prevent forest destruction from worsening again as it lacks enforceable protections for forests and human rights. 

Due in part to the controversy around Mercosur, the future of the EU’s trade policy review is also in question. In May, EU Trade ministers failed to reach conclusions on the new EU trade strategy. This reflects a prominent divergence of views between Member States on the future direction of Europe’s common trade policy, in particular how far EU trade policy should support European economic autonomy and address the climate emergency. 

Other relevant files for forests include the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) “reform”, which is currently in a deadlock between the European Council (Member States) and European Parliament, in large part because of a disagreement over its level of environmental ambition: the European Parliament and European Commission want a slightly higher – but still far lower than needed—level of ambition, whilst Member States are hellbent on removing as many environmental conditions as possible. Regardless of who gets their way, the near-certain outcome of this new CAP will tragically be to prolong European agriculture’s full-frontal assault on biodiversity—not a reform at all. 

Finally, early data shows that the EU’s supposedly “green” COVID recovery funds are – as was perhaps sadly predictable—widely being spent by Member States on very un-green activities. Member States are meant to spend 37% of the recovery funds on environmentally-friendly projects, and must reject project requests that do significant harm to the environment, or that destroy or alter biodiverse or carbon-rich habitats, particularly relating to tree planting. Research by the European Green party has revealed that many Member States have allocated little to no funding on biodiversity.  And proposals submitted so far include Estonia’s plan for a transport hub located in Natura 2000 habitat, and a plan in Czechia to plant trees with high market value in forest areas. 

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