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27th Sep 2021

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EU mulling rules to stop import of 'deforestation' products

  • Indonesia is one of the biggest exporters of palm oil, which is used for a variety of products, including biodiesel, shampoos and liquid detergents (Photo: CIFOR)
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The European Commission is planning to ask companies selling products in the EU such as palm oil, soya or coffee to prove that they are not contributing to deforestation, a leaked document shows.

As part of its overall climate agenda, the EU aims to curb forest degradation, driven by European consumption of various commodities, with a mixed system of "tiered due diligence".

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The new law, expected to be published in December, will be based on a system that will categorise countries into "low, standard and high" risks of deforestation, according to the impact assessment of the new regulation, seen by EUobserver.

The level of risk of the country of production will then determine due diligence obligations for companies selling their products on the EU's internal market - meaning "simplified due diligence duties" for low risk and "enhanced scrutiny" for high risk.

The leaked document, however, falls short of clarifying such differences.

The assessment of countries, which will be publicly available and based on scientific data, will be combined with "a list of contravening operators," such as exporters found to have breached rules under the regulation.

Nevertheless, this approach is seen as "problematic" by environmentalists, who foresee loopholes in its implementation.

"This benchmarking approach is problematic because it applies less due diligence to countries considered 'green' - opening the way for goods which have been produced on illegally deforested land, or which are the result of human rights violations, to be laundered through them," Nicole Polsterer from the NGO Fern told EUobserver.

"Strict due diligence requirements should be the norm, and no exemptions for goods from certain countries should be granted," she added.

The leaked document also notes that there is the risk that "unsustainable production activities would either be transferred to other commodities not in the scope of the regulation, or by switching to less discerning markets".

Other green groups, meanwhile, are warning that the EU Commission's plans lack adequate penalties to deter companies from breaking the rules.

Rubber and maize excluded

EU deforestation focus is concentrated on beef, wood, palm oil, soya, coffee, cocoa, rubber and maize - but the law is expected to cover only the first six products.

For Greenpeace campaigner Sini Eräjää, rubber, leather, meat (other than beef), and maize are "big omissions" among the list of commodities.

That is particularly the case for rubber since its embodied deforestation is estimated to be as much as from palm oil or soy - with annual imports accounting for €17.6bn.

However, according to the leaked document, "including these two commodities in the scope would require a very large effort, with little return in terms of curbing deforestation driven by EU consumption".

The world has lost around 420 million hectares of forest since 1990, mainly in Africa and South America, due to the expansion of agriculture activities dedicated to products such as soy, palm oil or cocoa.

And the EU is among the world's largest importers of tropical deforestation, being responsible for about 7 to 10 percent of it associated with international trade.

However, it is predicted that the amount of deforestation associated with EU imports will increase - with a rate of between 300,000 and 600,000 hectares per year by 2030. This area is equivalent to more than 560,000 football fields.

Narrow definition

Green groups have also slammed the upcoming proposal for using a "narrow definition of forests," leaving savannas like the Cerrado, wetlands like the Pantanal and other ecosystems out of the legal scope.

That is particularly a problem for areas like Brazilian Pantanal wetlands and Cerrado savannas, which are under pressure due to the increasing production of soy and meat.

"If this law does not extend its protection to wetlands, savannas, peatlands and others, then consumption in Europe will continue to devastate natural areas that provide livelihoods for Indigenous People, homes for countless species and essential defence against climate breakdown," Eräjää added.

Meanwhile, all the UN assessed pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 degrees or well below 2 degrees include different combinations of reforestation, afforestation, reduced deforestation, and bioenergy to restore these ecosystems.

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