As various heads of government gather today in Sibiu, Romania for the final EU summit before this month’s European elections, there’s one piece of news that they - and all of us - should contemplate. Humans are driving one million species to extinction.
In its first major assessment of biodiversity since 2005, the landmark report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), leaves no doubt about the threat posed to life on earth. And forests are at the heart of both the problem and the solution.
As home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, forests are the planet’s most important ecosystem, and therefore fundamental to attempts to prevent the collapse of our life support systems.
So, as EU leaders come together to reflect on their past performance and future direction, there could hardly be a more timely moment to assess the EU’s record on forests and to outline the steps the incoming Commission should take to improve it. This will help protect the carbon dioxide (CO2) forests store, as well the plants and animals they are home to, and the livelihoods they provide to hundreds of millions of people.
To look at it most generously, the Juncker era’s legacy on forests is mixed.
On the credit side, the EU took Poland to court for illegally logging in the UNESCO-protected Białowieża forest, winning a landmark case, which could see Poland hit with multi-million Euro fines.
Following a positive review, the EU decided to strengthen the implementation of its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan – which, regardless of its unwieldy acronym, is the first scheme of its kind to address the root causes of illegal logging, and which through its timber trade deals with forested countries, has helped strengthen civil society and the rights of forest communities around the world.
The EU has also, it appears, started listening to the many businesses, Member States and hundreds of thousands of its citizens, calling for specific measures to tackle the EU’s huge role in driving deforestation through imports of agricultural products. Collectively the EU is the biggest (per capita) importer of agricultural goods - such as palm oil, soy, beef and cocoa – grown on deforested land. A European Commission Communication outlining its plan on how to tackle this, is imminent.
But on the debit side, there are signs that this plan will be nowhere near ambitious enough. The Roadmap on deforestation, (which indicates direction of travel) doesn’t propose any additional regulation to tackle deforestation.
This is despite the fact that after years of voluntary measures, companies are now admitting that they need help to get their houses in order, and that 84 per cent of respondents to the Commission’s consultation on deforestation favour the EU stepping up action.
In its own back yard, EU policies are also putting forests in danger.
Most Member States are planning major harvesting increases over the next five years, which will lead to an unprecedented decline in the amount of CO₂ their forests store and absorb. Much of this lost carbon will not be accounted for in the EU’s greenhouse gas target, due to fatal flaws in the EU’s LULUCF Regulation, where emissions from land use and the forest sector are supposed to be accounted for.
One of the EU’s own studies indicates that this is largely due to an increase in logging driven by demand for bioenergy. It’s now widely accepted that the Commission betrayed Europe’s forests and those beyond its shores when it failed to adopt meaningful criteria to ensure that forest biomass burnt for energy doesn’t harm biodiversity or increase emissions. Unfortunately, in the next ten years it will do both, despite calls from 800 scientists, and others, warning the Commission of the risks.
A new strategy
The baton of responsibility for all this will soon pass to the EU’s new leaders.
They will have the power to ensure that the EU has laws capable of eliminating the human rights abuses and forest destruction in their agricultural supply chains, and so help protect the 40 per cent of the world’s extreme rural poor who live in forests or savannahs.
They will also assume the responsibility to protect EU citizens against the growing number of deadly forest fires on the continent, in part by protecting and restoring the natural forests, that are crucial for achieving the carbon neutrality target set for mid-century. From a climate perspective, it is high time the EU re-thinks the way we use land and forests, as well as the resources they provide.
And as the EU embarks on trade negotiations with highly forested countries, including Indonesia and Brazil, it should adopt inclusive trade rules that create space for governance reforms that protect forests.
Through its actions, the EU can show it is listening not just to its voters, but to those who are too young to cast their ballot, but who are taking to the streets and striking for their futures.
More than 100 MEP candidates have so far signed Fern’s Forest Pledge to promote policies that protect and restore the world’s forests. The pledge has also been endorsed by more than 40 international NGOs and globally renowned writers, film-makers, activists and environmentalists. Show your support for EU action to protect forests by sharing the Forest Pledge with candidate MEPs.