Overview:

In an effort to curtail deforestation and forest degradation, the EU has launched an ambitious ban on all products that can't be linked to more ethical practices. It will take a while to implement, but it's a key example for other economic regions to follow.

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Change comes fast and slow, as the latest green deal out of the European Union (EU) amply illustrates. On December 6, the European Commission welcomed news of an agreement reached between EU’s parliament and a specific council established for the purposes of reducing Europe’s impact on global deforestation and forest degradation. Companies will now be expected to prove that certain imports (palm oil, cattle, cocoa, coffee, timber, rubber, and various secondary products made with them) are not linked to deforestation practices.

This new “due diligence” regulation will require companies to produce records proving that their imports were not made on any land deforested after December 31, 2020, and by extension to keep much more precise geographical data on hand for compliance checks. They will also have to provide evidence that their imports were procured legally, under the respective laws for each product country. The Commission will help private industry in this work by running a benchmarking system to highlight world regions at higher and lower risks of deforestation; company obligations will vary depending on where they choose to source their products. The EU also promises to assist producer countries in the implementation of these new standards.

This decision comes on the eve of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which runs from December 7 to 19 in Montreal, Canada. It also draws on data like that found in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2020 report, Climate Change and Land, which noted that 23 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 to 2016 derive from agriculture, forestry, and other land-use-based industries. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations further estimated that, of 1.6 million square miles of forest lost since 1990, almost 700,000 (the size of Libya) have not been offset by new planting. A 2021 World Wildlife Fund report further found that the 27 members of the EU were collectively responsible for 16 percent of tropical deforestation via international trade: second only to China in related emissions metrics.

READ: So what did COP27 actually accomplish?

According to assessments filed with the original proposal, this decision stands to protect 278 square miles of forest annually, and to reduce carbon emissions by 31.9 metric tons per year. The EU also intends to use its new legal mandate as an opportunity to strengthen “forest partnerships” with other countries, to assist high-risk producer states with transitioning to better forest governance in general. The economic incentive exists, according to impact studies, in the rising interest among European consumers for deforestation-free products.

The only setback is that, as momentous a world-first as this decision might be, those same impact studies noted that, due to the costs of compliance especially for “micro-enterprises”, a long adjustment period would be required. For this reason, once the regulation is formally adopted (a process estimated to take 20 days), traders and operators have 18 months to become regulation-compliant, and smaller companies have two years. After these deadlines, all can be penalized up to four percent of their annual gross income in the EU.

The financial impact to consumers is expected to be minimal, while the moral culpability impact could be tremendous. “The new rules aim to ensure that when consumers buy these products, they don’t contribute to further degrading forest ecosystems,” said Marian Jurečka, the Czech minister who led Council talks, in a related statement. “Protecting the environment around the world, including forests and rainforests, is a common goal for all countries and the EU is ready to take its responsibility.”

The real question is whether or not we have come to such world-firsts too late. With the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) revealing that the world is off-track for vital climate change mitigation goals, steps like this latest EU resolution are a welcome change of pace—but with its sluggish implementation time, this latest green deal should also serve as a world-wide warning that we need to launch more such ambitious initiatives as soon as possible.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.