This week in Cancun politicians from around the world are discussing a scheme to protect the world's forests. Called REDD+, it is being hailed as a way to save the world's forests and relies upon developed nations to give funds to developing countries to stop deforestation. It is well known the important role forests play in protecting our environment. But REDD+ puts the focus of responsibility on developing countries, with developed countries focused on giving money. There is another side to this coin.
Around the world consumers use goods that come from forests everyday - wood, soya, palm oil and beef - to name a few. High consumer demand for these products means forests are worth more dead than alive. Developed nations need to think far more carefully about the effect their consumption has on the world's forests.
Consumers and retailers have a responsibility to make sure that products from forests are sustainable and that demand for sustainable forest products supports developing countries to protect forests. Many people think about buying fair-trade coffee or recycled paper, but few consumers are aware of whether the furniture they buy is made from legally-sourced timber. In the UK alone £700m a year is spent by UK shoppers on products made from illegally sourced wood. This illegal trade is a major cause of deforestation and undermines efforts to protect forests. It is estimated that one in ten of the products purchased in UK supermarkets contains palm oil - including many processed foods and cosmetics. Demand for palm oil means that natural forests are being replaced with oil palm plantations to make shampoo or chocolate bars.
Biofuels, which are increasingly used to fuel our cars, also present a real danger. Current government criteria don't account for all the negative consequences biofuel production has on forests. In fact when indirect land use change is taken into account, Europe's use of biofuels will emit an extra 27 to 56 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year and result in forest area the size of Ireland being wiped out.
Legislation can do a lot to solve these problems. This year the European Union banned illegal timber from being placed on the EU market. It is a big step forward and over the next few years businesses need to implement this legislation and ensure that it achieves its aim of excluding illegal timber from our shops. More can still be done. Strict sustainability criteria, which include social factors relevant to the timber's environmental sustainability, should be applied to all products originating from forests. These criteria can require that cultivation of the product did not result in deforestation - either directly or indirectly - and that products from forests brought into the EU must be harvested from forests that meet comprehensive criteria for sustainable forest management, including respect for the forest tenure rights of forest communities.
Strict sustainability criteria on products would reassure consumers about the impacts of their purchases and would also drive innovation as industry seeks out new ways to ensure goods do not undermine on our environmental, economic or social ambitions.
REDD+ should not be a get-out clause for people in developed countries to avoid tough choices about our own consumption habits. If we as consumers value forests, we need to reflect that in what we buy and sell, and take action at home to promote market-wide sustainability criteria. That would be a true REDD plus approach.
Janet Meissner Pritchard is an experienced public interest lawyer who leads ClientEarth's Climate & Forests legal team. ClientEarth is a non-profit environmental law organisation based in London, Brussels, Paris and Warsaw.