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Deforestation: seeing the wood for the trees

Protecting the world’s forests is back under the spotlight again. Greenpeace has announced that they will be dropping their membership of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), which is bad news for the world’s best known sustainability scheme. Greenpeace, a founder member of FSC, has criticised its inability to prevent deforestation amongst members and certificate holders in certain parts of the world. The news comes at the same time as moves to ban palm oil gain momentum in Europe. Along with palm oil and timber, other agricultural commodities like soy, rubber, cocoa, coffee and cattle are the main drivers of deforestation.  The problem is not limited to the tropics, Europe is trying to prevent destruction of its own forest with a threat of fines of 100,000 euros a day made to the Polish government unless they halt clearing of the Białowieża Forest, one of the best preserved natural forests in Europe.

The UN’s sustainable development goals pledge to halt deforestation by 2020. In response, many international brand owners have signed up to no-deforestation pledges.  But exactly how can these pledges be put into practice? Companies can of course audit their own supply chains to check that the commodities they buy do not come from deforested land. But supply chains are long and often hard to trace. Also, consumers have more faith in independent checks on deforestation-free supply chains. Sustainability schemes, which have a ban on forest clearance after a certain cut off date, are the main means of independently demonstrating sustainable production for most commodities. These schemes use third party auditors to ensure compliance, which comes with a cost, resulting in the sustainably certified material being sold at a higher price. Companies are reluctant to pay the extra. RSPO certified palm oil often can’t find a buyer. The news that FSC certifications in high-risk countries may not be trustworthy will further discourage companies from paying the extra to buy certified commodities from those countries. 

But sustainability schemes are still the best way of preventing deforestation, and Greenpeace has left the door open to continued cooperation with FSC.  Now governments need to encourage their use.

Europe is a major importer of commodities linked to deforestation and there is recognition that the problem must be tackled. A recently published report outlined policy options to prevent deforestation caused by European consumption of these commodities. Reducing the import duties for crops complying with sustainable production and deforestation criteria is one proposal. This measure would offset the higher cost of sustainability certification, helping to create a level playing field for sustainable commodities.  Extending the current sustainability criteria, which apply to bioenergy feedstocks, to other products, regardless of their use, would also be effective, according to the report. As the system has already been successfully implemented for bioenergy, extension to other markets seems feasible. With European Commission oversight, the bioenergy sustainability schemes have the strongest rules on deforestation and are free from the pressure large producers exert on schemes like FSC and RSPO.

Both of the options proposed in the report would be met with resistance from the countries and companies affected. However, if Europe is to be serious about reducing its impact on forests then root-and-branch action is needed.

Published: 23 April 18

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