Climate action requires halting Europe’s unseen import: deforestation

© CI/photo by Haroldo Castro

Between 1990 and 2008, Europe cut down an area of forest the size of Portugal. Why didn’t Europeans notice? Because these trees weren’t disappearing on European soil — they were being cleared in tropical forests far away, to grow crops for European markets.

According to the U.N. Environment Programme, 80% of all deforestation is caused by agricultural expansion. A large portion of this is caused by major economies that are “importing” too much deforestation in the form of products like soy, palm oil, beef, coffee and cocoa. Global demand for these products is booming, and this is threatening forests that are vital to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Conservation International (CI) is encouraging the European Union to lead the way in favor of deforestation-free agriculture products. On September 21, CI Europe is organizing an event at the European Parliament in Brussels to call for action ahead of the very important U.N. climate summit taking place in Paris in December.

So far 61 countries have announced their commitments to help reach a global climate agreement in Paris — including major economic powers like the U.S., China, the EU and Japan. Yet all these nations are missing a critical element in their plans: tackling emissions they generate outside their borders.

More farms, fewer trees

Science tells us that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050. Unfortunately, current commitments won’t be sufficient to reach this goal. Part of the problem is that developed countries are displacing some of their emission-intensive activities to developing countries, instead of greening their own consumption patterns.

For example, between 1990 and 2008 the EU managed to officially reduce its emissions by 19.2%. Yet according to a study funded by the European Commission, over the same period, it became the largest importer of deforestation in the world. This contributed to a global surge in emissions as demand for agricultural commodities encouraged the large-scale clearing of tropical forests from the Amazon to Indonesia — and increasingly Africa — to make way for farm and pastureland.

Protection and good management of forests could be 30% of the solution to climate change. Disregarding this fact ignores the elephant in the room.

Further reading

If the EU wants to remain a leader in global efforts to fight climate change, it cannot limit its ambition to reducing emissions within its borders. Rather, it must do something about its massive consumption of commodities whose production directly contributes to climate change.

A booming global demand for agricultural products is not all bad news. In supply countries, agricultural expansion creates jobs and helps people emerge from poverty. However most governments in these countries are becoming aware about the need to reduce deforestation to protect the climate — and their own economic interests.

Finding another way

In most developing countries the cost of cutting emissions from deforestation is relatively low. Sustainable intensification methods (also known as “climate-smart” agriculture practices) allow farmers to increase crop yields while decreasing deforestation. For example, Brazil has prevented more emissions since 2005 than the entire EU by reducing deforestation in the Amazon, partly through the soy moratorium that ruled that soy should be grown on already degraded land, rather than clearing standing forests for production. The solutions exist, but they require strong political will and adequate investment in planning, governance and technology.

It is time for countries to stop pointing fingers at climate conferences and work together to tackle emissions. On agriculture and deforestation, both producers and consumers have to face their responsibilities. Governments of developing countries need to show leadership, but they cannot be expected to take all the action on their own. If they don’t receive adequate political, technical and financial support from donor countries in favor of sustainable production, it’s likely their domestic emissions will remain too high.

In the last few years, several multinational companies have committed to deforestation-free supply chains. It is time for the EU and other major economies to do the same. There are three very useful steps they can take:

  1. Give a clear political signal by announcing an action plan to stop “importing deforestation” with clear criteria to favor sustainable supply chains.
  2. Provide more help to developing countries to modernize their agriculture practices so they can increase production without cutting more forest.
  3. Contribute to sustainable management of remaining forests. Not cutting the forest is good; making sure it remains intact long term is better. This can be achieved with mechanisms like REDD+, which bring financial resources to help keep tropical forests standing.

As the Paris climate conference approaches, the world’s major importers of agricultural products need to commit. The EU is well placed to take a leading role. It is the largest trade power in the world, and the improvements it’s already made to the timber industry have already shown that regulating supply chains is possible.

We hope to see EU leaders come to Paris with a clear message that Europe wants to move away from importing deforestation, and wants to solve this issue in win-win partnerships with all nations involved. Such an announcement would increase the chances of an ambitious climate deal in Paris — something we all need.

Jean-Philippe Palasi is the senior director of European policy at CI Europe.