OPINION: As Britain tries to protect forests, will trade get in the way?

by Chiara Vitali | Fern
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 16:05 GMT

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After Brexit, the UK needs trade deals, which could undermine efforts to crack down on deforestation. Here's how to get around that

Chiara Vitali is a forest governance campaigner at FERN, a forests and rights NGO.

The doubts about the climate crisis that Boris Johnson used to express in his newspaper columns are a thing of the past.

In the foreword to the recent UK policy review, the largest of its kind since the Cold War, the UK prime minister wrote that “tackling climate change and biodiversity loss” is his government’s “number one international priority”.

The reality behind the rhetoric will be tested this week when the government’s flagship Environment Bill - designed to fill the legislative void left by the UK’s departure from the European Union - returns to the House of Commons.      

A key element of this bill is a due diligence law to stop products that contribute to illegal deforestation from entering the UK.

The need for such a law is incontestable: agriculture is the biggest single cause of deforestation globally, and the UK bears a significant measure of responsibility – with an area of land almost the size of this country needed to satisfy its demand for only a handful of forest-risk commodities.

Flawed proposal

The UK imports soy for animal feed, leather, and some beef from South America, all of which drive the destruction of the Amazon, the Cerrado and other precious biomes.

Tropical forests in Indonesia are razed for land to produce the palm oil that saturates the goods lining British supermarket shelves.

And the copious amounts of chocolate the average Briton consumes every year predominantly come from cocoa beans imported from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana - nations where the cocoa industry fuels rampant deforestation and child labour.

Yet as it stands, the UK’s proposed due diligence law is unlikely to make a significant impact, given its well-documented flaws. 

These include that the proposal relies on environmental laws in producer countries to determine legality; it doesn’t address human rights (despite deforestation and human rights abuses, including land grabs and violence, often going hand in hand); it would only apply to large-sized companies (excluding many of the agri-food companies responsible for deforestation in supply chains); and it doesn’t cover the financial institutions funding the operations which destroy forests (if the goods are too tainted to purchase, surely financiers shouldn’t be funding them?).

Post-Brexit

These shortcomings indicate a wider problem: the tension in the UK government’s view of its place in a post-Brexit world.

On the one hand, it wants to be seen as a global environmental leader spearheading the fight to protect the world’s forests, especially as it is the host of the UN  climate summit in November – COP26.

An example of this is the Forest, Agriculture, Commodity and Trade (FACT) initiative the UK has set up to bring countries together to work towards sustainable supply chains.

On the other hand, having just exited the EU, it is desperate for new trade deals. And the kind of enforceable regulations needed to protect the world’s forests and habitats could be seen as potential barriers to trade.

It seems that the UK is relying on diplomacy to try to square this apparent circle. But it is unlikely this approach will work with governments such as Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, which could simply change the definition of legal deforestation to circumvent the UK’s new due diligence law.

Just how far-fetched such a notion is, was evident once again last week, when federal police in Brazil raided the country’s environment ministry and the environment minister’s home, as part of their investigation into the illegal export of timber from the Amazon. 

A false dichotomy?

While Boris Johnson’s new-found awareness of the multiple crises facing our planet may be genuine, any good intentions appear to be undermined by the outdated notion that environmental protection must come at the expense of trade and growth – and ultimately, that growth must prevail.

The more the world grapples with the impact of the climate crisis, the clearer it is that no growth can be sustained if it is at the expense of the world’s forests.

With COP26 imminent, the UK government must show real leadership by abandoning these outdated notions and proposing ways to bring together prosperity, environmental protection and justice.

And there is proof that this can be done.

It comes from a time when the UK was in the EU, and championing innovative Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) - timber trade deals that the EU signed with forested countries, and that use trade as leverage to tackle the root causes of illegal logging.

Trade, environmental protection and justice

Policy approaches such as the VPAs demonstrate that trade, environmental protection and justice do not need to be mutually exclusive. The UK has been a bold innovator before; it must show the same courage in strengthening the environment bill so that it tackles all deforestation, includes human rights and addresses the role of finance.

It must also explore creative complementary approaches that can tackle the root causes of deforestation overseas. It should do so in the knowledge that, far from being a hindrance to economic growth, protecting our forests is good for business—and the sign of true, forward-thinking leadership.