Government unveils proposals designed to help curb deforestation linked to demand for forest-related products from UK consumers
New legislation could see UK firms fined for using products sourced from illegally cleared land in the tropics, as the government seeks to step up efforts to curb demand from British consumers for products that are thought to contribute to unsustainable rates of deforestation around the world.
The law - which is open for consultation from today - would cover key agricultural commodities including soy, palm oil, cocoa, beef, and leather. Under the proposals, larger businesses operating in the UK would have to carry out due diligence on their supply chains by publishing information on the origins of these commodities and demonstrating that they were produced in line with local laws that protect forests and other natural ecosystems.
Businesses that fail to comply would be subject to fines, with levels to be set at a later date, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.
"We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world's most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can't afford not to act as a country," said international environment minister Lord Goldsmith, as he launched the consultation.
"There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting today on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws."
Recent decades have seen deforestation become a major global driver of climate change and biodiversity loss, particularly in tropical regions. In the past 50 years, almost a fifth of the world's biggest rainforest, the Amazon, has been destroyed. World Bank statistics suggest 1.3 million square kilometres of forest were lost between 1990 and 2016, an area bigger than South Africa.
And despite some progress at slowing rates of deforestation in some countries, overall clearances are only accelerating with a further 119,000 square kilometres of forest lost in 2019 alone, equating to a football pitch of primary rainforest vanishing every six seconds.
Such turbocharged clearances mean deforestation now accounts for around 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, the UN's environment, development, and agriculture chiefs issued a joint statement declaring that "forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change - thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon". They estimated that tackling deforestation and restoring damaged forests could provide up to 30 per cent of the climate solution.
The vast majority of forest clearances are undertaken to make space for agricultural commodities, whether to create plantations for soy, oil palm, cocoa or rubber, or pasture for beef and leather. Around 80 per cent of tropical deforestation is linked to the production of agricultural commodities. Much of this is to meet overseas demand for products, with consumption from the EU and UK accounting for around 10 per cent of global deforestation linked to commodities, according to the EU's own estimates.
This startling reality has been absorbed by the British public, with 67 per cent keen for the government to do more to tackle global deforestation, according to a new survey conducted by the WWF. A further 81 per cent told researchers there should be greater transparency about the origin of products imported into the UK, while 73 per cent said the UK should stop trading with countries that fail to protect the environment.
However, some campaigners argued the new law does not go far enough. Greenpeace called Defra's proposal "seriously flawed", arguing that simply urging compliance with local laws was insufficient to halt deforestation.
"We've all seen the way President Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest," said Elena Polisano, forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK. "Proactively, the UK government and UK industry needs to support a just transition at home and in forest regions to food systems that work with nature, including the restoration of natural ecosystems."
However, tackling illegal deforestation in their supply chains remains a major challenge for UK companies, despite a growing number of pledges from leading brands in support of efforts to deliver zero deforestation in their supply chains. Multinationals have banded together in recent years to support sustainable certification initiatives and satellite tracking projects designed to reduce the risk of products linked to illegal deforestation entering their supply chains. But overarching goals to end net deforestation look set to be missed and companies continue to face significant technical challenges as they attempt to trace the path of commodities through their supply chains.
A significant proportion of all forest conversion is thought to be illegal, while one comprehensive analysis estimated that 49 per cent of tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture. Another study found that the EU and UK import €6bn of soy, beef, leather, and palm oil that were grown or reared on land illegally cleared of forest in the tropics every year.
In response to these challenges, the UK government last year established an independent taskforce, the Global Resource Initiative (GRI), to consider how the UK could help slash the impact of its supply chains. Among its recommendations was legislation requiring UK companies to prevent commodities originating from illegal deforestation entering their supply chains.
"I'm delighted to see the government respond to one of the key recommendations of the Global Resource Initiative," said the Taskforce's chair, Sir Ian Cheshire. "Every day, British consumers buy food and other products which are contributing to the loss of the world's most precious forests. We need to find ways of reducing this impact if we are to tackle climate change, reduce the risks of pandemics and protect the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world."
The consultation on the new law will now run for six weeks.
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