Forests are the basis of life on earth, Mr Juncker, and deserve your attention

Friday, 13 July 2018 08:00 GMT

An aerial view shows deforested land during "Operation Green Wave" conducted by agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, to combat illegal logging in Apui, in the southern region of the state of Amazonas, Brazil, July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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The EU is in danger of failing to deliver on its commitments to protect forests and land

It’s easy to appear alarmist when talking about the state of the world’s forests. Yet sober analysis - not scaremongering - makes protecting them one of our most urgent tasks.

Consider the data released last month by Global Forest Watch: 2017 was the second worst year on record for tropical tree cover loss. Every minute the equivalent of 40 football fields of trees vanished. The findings, if anything, seem grimmer when broken down nationally.

Colombia suffered a 46 percent increase in tree cover loss in 2016; Brazil experienced its second highest rate of recorded tree cover loss ever; in the Democratic Republic of Congo  tree cover loss exceeded previous records.

In the EU, things don’t look much better. The EU’s own models show that their forests will absorb half as much carbon in 2050 as today, due in part to an increase in harvesting forests for energy. The recently concluded Renewable Energy Directive has done little prevent this from happening. And the EU’s Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation contains so many caveats, that even experts can’t tell us if the EU will be able to count the real emissions released from forest destruction.

Yet humanity’s fate is inseparable from that of the planet’s forests.

More than 1.5 billion people rely on them for their survival and as the recent Nature4Climate initiative shows, they are crucial in the fight against climate change. Since deforestation is responsible for 11 per cent of global emissions, it will be impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees without protecting them. They cradle 80 percent of the world’s plants and creatures, and protect land and water. Their health benefits are also legion: spending even short time in a forest improves people’s mood, cardiovascular health and reduces blood pressure and stress.

Today, forests’ perilous condition will be the focus of U.N. and government officials, NGO representatives and others gathered in New York reviewing progress towards the 15th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), namely:  to “promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally”.

It seems an opportune moment to reflect on the EU’s role in driving deforestation across the world - and its alarming failure to stop it.

Agriculture is the biggest cause of deforestation globally, and the EU is the world’s second biggest importer of agricultural goods which cause deforestation.  Most of this is happening illegally: nearly half of tropical deforestation for commercial agriculture is the result of illegal clearing, which a recent study estimates leads to US$ 2,300 per hectare in lost taxes in forested countries. This also means there is no level playing field for products that we also produce like soy, putting EU farmers at an unfair disadvantage.

The EU has made the first steps. It has made commitments to act...

Aside from its commitment to tackle deforestation under the SDGs, there is its pledge under the 7th Environment Action Programme to draw up an Action Plan on Deforestation, as well its undertaking to half the rate of deforestation by 2020 under the New York Declaration on Forests.

It has also explored options for making a change…

Earlier this year a much delayed feasibility study showed how the European Commission could fight deforestation, including what the authors said was the most effective: new legislation to make it mandatory for companies importing and consuming forest risk commodities to conduct due diligence on goods they place on the EU market.

So now, it’s time for the EU to take this effective action.

And it’s not only Fern who are saying this. Scores of NGOs – among the largest in Europe - and 167,000 citizens have made a direct plea to President Juncker to act. The European Parliament is pressing for action. All the biggest importers of so-called forest-risk commodities – Netherlands, UK, France, Germany and Italy are calling for action. 470 companies who import forest risk commodities have already pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, though progress is slow, and it is unlikely they will meet them without help from governments.

With only 18 months left to meet the SDG deadline to halt deforestation, the foot needs to be on the accelerator. But so far, we are witnessing a spectacular display of the EU at its worst, with an administrative log-jam blocking action to protect the basis of life itself, forests.

At this rate, there is a high risk that SDG 15’s 2020 goal to end deforestation will sail by, unmet. Worse, it may sail by without a plan. It is this kind of apathy that makes cynical citizens, anxious at a lack of protection, into angry voters, triggering the waves of populism that we have seen across Europe and beyond.

Imagine a world without forests, Mr Juncker? Don’t let this be your legacy.

Hannah Claustre Mowat is Campaign Coordinator at the forests and rights NGO Fern