In another step to curb the accelerating pace of man-made climate change, Brussels has set its sights on the chocolate we eat, the coffee we drink and the leather we wear.
Under new rules unveiled on Wednesday, the European Commission plans to ban the sale of agricultural products made in deforested and degraded land.
The initial list of targeted foodstuffs covers soy, beef, palm oil, cocoa and coffee, as well as wood.
The move, designed in line with the European Green Deal, is an attempt to ensure forests around the world remain intact and continue to absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.
While forests are often described as the lungs of the earth, their mismanagement and abuse is one of the main drivers behind global warming. When a company logs a forest or drains a wetland in order to make space for raising cattle or harvesting timber, felled trees release the carbon they have been storing back into the atmosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land uses, including livestock breeding. In the last 30 years, the world has lost 420 million hectares of forest – an area larger than the whole EU – to deforestation, according to the United Nations.
These massive and dangerous dimensions have thrust the phenomenon into the forefront of climate action. Among the deals achieved during COP26 was a major pledge by more than 100 countries to end deforestation and land degradation by 2030.
The EU, one of the signatories, is now trying to give further impetus to this global movement with a draft regulation to ensure the products sold to European consumers are strictly deforestation-free.
“This proposal is truly ground-breaking,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner environment, ocean and fisheries, told reporters while presenting the draft law.
“It targets not just illegal but all deforestation driven by agricultural expansion.”
Sinkevičius underscored the regulation will apply to “all steps of the supply chain” and be “non-discriminatory” by treating equally EU exports and imports.
How will the regulation work in practice?
Businesses of all sizes, from multinationals to SMEs, that trade in the six selected products will be compelled to follow the rules, which operate under a traceability system.
Companies will be asked to collect detailed information, including geographical coordinates, about the farm or plantation where their goods are produced in order to prove they comply with the regulation’s requirements. This information will be digitally submitted to national regulators.
If one company fails to demonstrate its products are legal and deforestation-free, it will be barred from placing them anywhere inside the European single market, which encompasses the 27 member states together with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
In case the company disregards the rules and goes ahead with the non-compliant product, the national regulator can slap penalties on the basis of the environmental damage, confiscate the unlawful merchandise and even seize the revenues obtained from its sale.
Regulators are also entitled to carry on-site inspections if they suspect wrongdoing.
To guide domestic authorities in their daily work, the European Commission will establish a ranking of countries split according to their risk of deforestation: low, standard and high. Products made in high-risk countries will be subject to closer scrutiny and more stringent rules.
The list will be public with the aim of directing consumers and investors towards sustainable markets.
Brussels hopes the rules will reduce carbon emissions by 32 million metric tons a year and act as a pressure tool to encourage similar legislation in other countries.
Will other products be targeted?
Initially, the regulation will cover six products: soy, beef, palm oil, cocoa, coffee and wood.
The rules also include some derived products, such as chocolate, cocoa powder, leather, plywood, box pallets, barrels and wooden frames for paintings, mirrors and photographs.
The European Commission considers EU consumption of these commodities is aggravating deforestation the most. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the bloc is the world’s second-biggest importer of deforestation, only behind China and above India and the United States.
Commissioner Sinkevičius said the list was a “political decision” and should be viewed as a starting point, with the possibility of gradually adding more products, such as rubber.
For the time being, the regulation will cover deforestation related to forests and will exclude the damages arising from draining wetlands and peatlands for agricultural purposes.
When will the rules enter into force?
The draft regulation will have to be negotiated and decided by member states and the European Parliament. Once the two co-legislators reach an agreement, a process that can take up to two years, the rules will enter into force.
However, the Commission introduced a provision that will retroactively apply the rules to all products made after December 2020.
France, which is poised to take over the EU Council’s rotating six-month presidency in January, has said it wants to prioritise the issue.
There seems to be strong popular support behind the initiative: the public consultation that preceded the Commission’s proposal received more than 1.2 million responses, the second most popular in the EU’s history after the 2018 debate on clock change.
What has been the reaction to the new rules?
Environmental organisations have welcomed the due diligence rules as a positive step in the EU’s fight against climate change while voicing certain reservations about the regulation’s shortcomings.
The draft law is a “very good foundation” that sets the EU apart from international allies like the United States and the United Kingdom, says Anke Schulmeister, senior forest policy officer at WWF.
“The European Commission needs to be very flexible and fast-reacting to changes: what might be safe today might not be safe tomorrow,” Schulmeister told Euronews, referring to the six selected commodities.
“This law is only going to work if there’s proper implementation from national authorities.”
Schulmeister hopes the co-legislators won’t water down the text and instead will strive to expand its scope to more products, like maize, poultry and dairy, and more at-risk ecosystems, like savannahs.
“Either it’s empty promises or it’s the way forward.”
Greenpeace EU called the draft law a “glimmer of hope” and praised the traceability mechanism, but criticised the lack of provisions regarding international law and the rights of indigenous people.
Global Witness, Friends of the Earth Europe and the Greens group in the European Parliament voiced similar concerns about the shortcomings of the Commission’s proposal, such as the absence of obligations for financial entities directly involved in deforestation, but nevertheless highlighted its pioneering character and mandatory provisions.
Meanwhile, COPA-COGECA, the group that represents the interests of European farmers and agricultural businesses, warned the executive’s idea of ranking countries according to their deforestation risk is “incompatible” with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and may “distort the competition on both the EU and global market”.
The legislation should have a “gradual approach in its implementation” and provide farmers with a “wide range of alternative solutions” and an “EU plan for protein production” to reduce their dependence on imports, the group said in a statement provided to Euronews.