Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

Opinion

Amazon deforestation and the EU-Mercosur trade deal

  • A new study confirms this grim truth: the Amazon now releases more carbon than it stores (Photo: leoffreitas)

For a long time, even the most pessimistic climate activists took heart in the fact that the formidable Amazon rainforest was a kind of last-ditch backstop, a massive ecosystem that would continue to vacuum up the huge quantities of carbon we irresponsibly pumped into the atmosphere.

But what happens when that's no longer true? Worse still, if the opposite is true?

Read and decide

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The Amazonian ecosystem, the world's largest rainforest (almost 33 percent of the planet's forest area), hasn't just ceased to suck up surplus carbon. It's actually producing carbon now.

The magazine Nature just released a rigorous study that confirms this grim truth: the Amazon now releases more carbon than it stores.

Brazil's National Institute for Space Research finds Amazonian deforestation hit a 12-year high. And because so much of the Amazon is in Brazil, it matters - to the whole world - that Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is so environmentally irresponsible.

Who else is to blame?

With the rise of a global middle class, more and more people expect burgers and steaks—that is, beef—on demand, which means that beef production is literally burning up the planet's rainforest, as ever more land is cleared for cattle (which is accelerating climate change). That does not, however, mean that the planet is necessarily doomed.

What does EU do next?

As the world's largest market, and one of the three poles of the global economy, what the EU does next has implications for billions. A positive approach could encourage the US to increase its commitment to saving the environment and shame China into cleaning up its act. A negative approach, though, could kill any green momentum the world has realised.

So far, I fear, the European Union is leaning in the wrong direction.

Just take a look at the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement (which, fortunately, has not yet been ratified.) The EU's agreement with the South American trade bloc, which includes Brazil, the continent's largest economy, would be the largest trade deal in Brussels' history. It's a big deal for Mercosur, too: the European Union is its number one trade and investment partner.

That, however, only underscores how important the EU is to the wider world.

Regrettably, however, it seems that the EU has turned a blind eye to deforestation in the Amazon. So much so that over 400 civil society organisations are pushing a 'Stop EU-Mercosur' coalition, aiming to derail at least the current iteration of the proposed free trade agreement. Because free trade agreements should be grounded in clear principles.

For example, concern and protection for the environment, a cause the EU at least claims it is dedicated to (and elsewhere has made tremendous progress in).

Palm oil case study

Considering the importance of beef to EU-Mercosur trade, and the great overall impact of beef production on deforestation and climate change, the European Union should be actively seeking out models of sustainability in that and similar industries, which it can then promote. Fortunately, the EU doesn't have to look very far at all.

Palm oil is, like beef, a forest risk commodity. And there are, sadly, instances where palm oil production does contribute to deforestation.

However, there are also places that have made so much progress towards full sustainability that they have turned deforestation around. The non-profit CDP has found that of all forest risk commodities, palm oil has the best green record.

In Malaysia, for example—the second largest palm oil producer in the world—there is now a nationally mandated rubric, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). To achieve certification, producers, including the many smallholder farmers in the country's palm oil industry, must verify that they have met certain green and moral standards.

These include ceasing to convert tropical rainforest into palm oil plantations, while also protecting labour and tropical wildlife. With a concerted governmental push, and now legal penalties for non-compliance, nine-out-of-ten Malaysian palm oil producers are certified. The World Resources Institute has analysed the results for Malaysia and they are immensely encouraging.

Last year's deforestation levels for Malaysia were at their lowest level since 2004.

That's the right template for the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement and especially beef production.

Strangely, however, not only is there no evidence the EU is seeking to learn from this progress, but the bloc has banned the import of palm oil for biofuels. That short-sighted decision only shifts demand to countries that make fewer environmental demands—like China.

The EU should be actively promoting sustainable palm oil, encouraging trade in sustainable palm oil, and presenting it as a model for other forest risk commodities. After all, the European Union is powerful enough to write such expectations into its free trade agreements.

The question is: What can Brussels do with all that power? And what will it do with all that power?

Author bio

Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare. She is currently working as a research associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nüremberg.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Amazon fires mean EP must rethink Mercosur trade deal

The European parliament debates on Tuesday the fires in the Amazon region. "It goes without saying that, in light of the gravity of the situation, Europe will need to renegotiate the Mercosur agreement", writes MEP Kathleen Van Brempt.

How EU firms and banks help fund Amazon fires

Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Blackrock, and Vanguard collectively own more than $1.1bn in debt in the three largest soy, and the three largest cattle companies, and own $6bn worth of shares in these companies.

EU Commission 'failed' on assessing Mercosur trade deal

The EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly said the European Commission was guilty of "maladministration" by failing to make a timely assessment of any environmental impact from the EU-Mercosur trade deal before finalising negotiations in 2019.

EU banks play 'major role' in deforestation, report finds

Banks based in the EU have earned a reported €401m from deforestation, out of more than €30bn worth of deals with companies linked to logging. Deal-making was dominated by big banks from the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy.

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