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Can Europe really preserve global forests?

July 2, 2024

The long arm of a new EU law on deforestation has met with resistance from the US but is poised to reduce agricultural emissions and biodiversity loss.

Deforestation in the Brasilian Amazon
Forests are vital to life on the planet. Can an EU law help save them?Image: Alberto Araújo/Amazônia Real

European supermarket shelves may soon be stocked with several deforestation-free products, thanks to a "game-changing" EU law. 

The EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) requires traders placing certain products on the EU market or exporting them from it to prove they don't originate from land that was deforested after 2020. 

It targets commodities with the heaviest deforestation footprint, including cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood, as well as products such as chocolate, tires, furniture and paper derived from them. 

"It is the first of its kind," said Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer with the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation NGO. "It is a paradigm shift that is beneficial for us."

Products on the shelt in Lidl
The EU law targets products with the heaviest deforestation footprintImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

Pushbacks from several countries 

In recent weeks, the United States has called for a delay to the law, which was adopted last summer and will apply from the end of 2024, stating it would hurt producers that could not comply. Several other countries, including several member states within the EU itself, have raised concerns about the administrative burden it would place on farmers. 

While the EU has not yet publicly responded to the US calls for a delay, a European Commission spokesperson said it was "working very actively" to prepare the law's entry into effect next year. So, what impact could it have on the world's forests and environment?

Forests crucial for climate and biodiversity 

The law aims to curb Europe's contribution to the "alarming rate" of global deforestation and its attendant emissions and biodiversity loss

EU consumption is estimated to have accounted for around 10% of global deforestation in recent decades.

Forests are vital for life on the planet, supporting the existence of over 80% of all terrestrial animals, plants and insects. They ensure we have enough air to breathe, filter our drinking water and provide protection from landslides, floods and storms. 

And they are crucial when it comes to climate change. Forests act as giant carbon sinks and if they are destroyed, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere, fueling temperature rises. 

Despite most countries pledging to stop forest loss by 2030, the world is nowhere near the levels needed to achieve this. 

In 2023 alone, tropical forest cover the size of Singapore disappeared every week. Deforestation is one of the most significant drivers of climate change, contributing up to an estimated 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The role of farming and consumption

The law takes aim at the key cause of deforestation. 

An estimated 90% of forest loss is driven either directly or indirectly by the expansion of agriculture, as trees are cut down to make way for fields and plantations to feed the growing global demand for food and other resources. Between 1990 and 2020, an aggregate area of forest larger than the size of the EU was converted to agricultural use.

How car tires drive deforestation

The EUDR targets products with the heaviest deforestation footprints. 

According to the US research organization the World Resources Institute (WRI), just seven commodities — wood, rubber, cattle, coffee, cocoa, palm oil and soy — accounted for 57% of all tree cover loss associated with agriculture between 2001 and 2015, replacing an area of forest more than twice the size of Germany. 

Reduction in emissions and forest loss 

The EU is the second largest market for these products after China — and demand is growing.  

Continued consumption and production of cattle, coffee, palm oil, soy and wood alone would be linked to 250,000 hectares of forest per year by 2030, according to an EU impact assessment of the law. 

Palm oil and soy account for over 60% of EU-imported products linked to deforestation. 

While many countries have attempted to make specific supply chains more transparent and traceable — from cocoa in Ghana to timber in Indonesia — the scope of commodities and size of the target market sets the EU regulation apart, explains Tina Schneider, director of forest governance and policy at WRI.  "The EUDR is going to be very significant in tackling deforestation because it's the first regulation that covers the entire market for the commodities listed in the EU." 

The Commission states the regulation could reduce carbon emissions caused by EU consumption and production of the listed products by at least 32 million metric tons a year and save over 70,000 hectares of forest. 

With more efficient yet environmentally friendly agriculture on existing land, there shouldn't be a need for new deforestation, said Schulmeister-Oldenhove, adding that the regulation says the EU will support partner countries in transitioning towards a more sustainable production model.  

A butterfly perched on a branch in the Amazon
Forests sustain the existence of around 80% of terrestrial animals, plants and insectsImage: DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP

She adds that while other drivers of deforestation are not addressed by the regulation — such as poultry and pig farming, as well as mining for metals and minerals — the products it covers are extensive enough to minimizes the chance of having something on your plate that "costs you a forest."

Companies on their own aren't doing enough 

A 2022 study of the 350 most influential companies linked to deforestation found 72% of them did not have a deforestation commitment for all the forest-risk commodities in their supply chain.

"Having voluntary measures that aren't really producing desired results isn't good if we want to reach the global target of ending and halting forest loss," says Schneider. "To get wide uptake across the entire market, you need regulation."

Piles of chopped down wood
Many companies have not made adequate deforestation commitments Image: Michael Bihlmayer/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

Several countries have complained that the regulation burdens farmers. However, Schneider emphasizes that while farmers may be asked to provide information — such as geolocation data on their plots — the legal obligation to collect and report this rests exclusively on the companies further down the supply chain placing products on the EU market.

According to a spokesperson for the European Commission, it is working hard to support smallholder farmers prepare for the law, including through two programs funded with a total of €110 million. They added that some smallholder associations have stressed that the EUDR could provide them with new opportunities, including a stronger position in the value chain through owning their geolocation data.

And although supply chains are notoriously complex to trace — often spanning multiple actors and crossing borders — Schneider says there are now an increasing number of technologies and platforms available to facilitate traceability and transparency. 

Palm oil fruits in Costa Rica
Palm oil and soy account for over 60% of EU imported products linked to deforestation Image: Marco Bonacini/Mark Pitt Images/Zoonar/picture alliance

"Now you're seeing this huge increase in attention and effort to get this all set up in time to either directly support due diligence for the EUDR for those placing product on the EU market, or to be ready to provide the buyer information about where their products are coming from," said Schneider. 

While the US and UK are also making moves towards regulation, the EUDR has added huge momentum in the fight against deforestation, explained Schneider. "It clearly communicates to the rest of the world, and the actors within Europe, that the EU is prioritizing taking responsibility for its consumption and the potential negative effects of that consumption."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker


https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/ uri=CELEX%3A52021SC0327&qid=1649327404877
EU Impact Assessment Report 

European Parliament press release on EUDR 

United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals 

Disentangling the numbers behind agriculture-driven tropical deforestation, Science journal 

Holly Young Holly Young is a climate reporter on DW’s Environment desk based in Berlin, Germany.@holly_young88