Figueres to European leaders: Climate action requires protecting forests

Renowned climate policy expert Christiana Figueres called on European leaders Tuesday to regulate agriculture imports to the European Union (EU) that cause deforestation.

Speaking before an audience of EU officials in Brussels, Figueres, former head of the UN’s climate change body and a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, addressed Europe’s import-driven deforestation — the environmental footprint of products consumed by Europeans but produced elsewhere.

According to Figueres, “deforestation represents a significant threat for the climate, and Europe ought to focus on the impact of its consumption abroad.”

The role of deforestation in climate change is clear, but it is often overlooked in international deliberations.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation, half of which are the result of internationally traded agriculture products. According to Conservation International experts, stopping deforestation and restoring degraded lands can deliver at least 30 percent of the required emissions reductions needed to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement, while at the same time improving food security and the well-being of the developing countries.

Figueres said that now is the time for Europe to double down on its commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Between 1990 and 2008, Europe was the top importer of deforestation around the world, resulting in the cutting down of an expanse of forest the size of Portugal. But this environmental harm is invisible to most Europeans.

As one example, in the Cerrado region of Brazil alone, annual emissions from deforestation for soy production are greater than the EU’s entire remaining emissions gap for its 2030 target. That means that in just this one region of Brazil, helping to halt deforestation from soy production would be enough to meet Europe’s full target for the Paris Agreement, according to an assessment by the National Wildlife Federation.

The EU is already taking steps to deal with its role in deforestation.

On the sidelines of the Paris negotiations in 2015, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark signed the Amsterdam Declaration (later joined by Norway and Italy), restating their commitment to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity supply chains by 2020, as agreed in the 2014 U.N. New York Declaration on Forests. This group of countries meets on a regular basis to discuss which policies and measures they should adopt to follow through on their commitment.

In another example, the European Parliament asked EU regulators to restrict the import of unsustainable palm oil, a commodity that is one of the top contributors to deforestation and of which the EU is the second-largest importer. In part due to its palm oil production, Indonesia is now the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, despite being only the 15th-largest economy.

EU member states are pursuing the same goals as many private-sector actors that have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains and investments. Examples include the Consumer Goods Forum’s resolution for zero net deforestation by 2020, the Banking Environment Initiative’s efforts to provide deforestation-free financing, and numerous commitments by individual retailers, brands and traders including Starbucks and Walmart.

“As a major trading bloc, the EU can rise to the challenge and reinforce private-sector efforts through a regulation that creates a common baseline for all companies, levels the playing field, and supports developing countries,” said Herbert Lust, managing director at Conservation International Europe. “That would be good news for Europe and for forests everywhere.”

Cécile Schneider is manager of sustainable production at Conservation International Europe.

Further reading