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The lungs of the world are collapsing at an alarming rate: EAC urges Government to act with urgency to tackle global deforestation

4 January 2024

UK consumption is unsustainable, with the nation’s appetite for commodities including soy, cocoa, palm oil, beef and leather putting enormous pressure on forests – the lungs of the world – the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns today.

Forests host 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, support the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people and provide vital ecosystem services to support local and global economies. Deforestation threatens irreplaceable biodiverse habitats and contributes 11% of global carbon emissions.

The intensity of UK consumption on the world’s forests – its footprint per tonne of product consumed – is higher than that of China. The EAC is calling on Ministers to develop a Global Footprint Indicator to demonstrate this impact to the public, and a target to reduce the UK’s impact on global deforestation. Such a measure will only be meaningful if sufficient monitoring and reporting is embedded for forest risks – including mining – so EAC recommends that the Government work with international partners to improve oversight in the UK and globally.

Through legislative provision in the Environment Act, the Government has committed to establishing a regime  to require forest-based commodities to be certified as ‘sustainable’ if they are to be sold into UK markets. At COP28 the Government announced that the first four of these commodities are to be cattle products (other than dairy), cocoa, palm oil and soy, which the EAC was pleased to see.

While the Government’s intention to tackle sustainability concerns of products is welcome, EAC is concerned  over the seeming lack of urgency about the implementation of this regime, given global commitments to halt and reverse current deforestation trends by 2030. For instance, no timeline has been offered as to when this important legislation will be introduced, and its phased approach of incorporating products gradually into the regime does not reflect the necessity of tackling deforestation urgently.

The Government should also bring other forest-risk commodities, such as maize, rubber and coffee, into the certification regime as soon as possible to be ‘sustainable’. 

The Committee recommends that the Government strengthens the existing legislative framework so as to prohibit financial sector businesses from trading or using commodities linked to deforestation.

At global COP summits, the UK has been instrumental in delivering ambitious agreements to address global deforestation. However, despite this, the world does not appear to be on track to halt deforestation by 2030: a key commitment made during COP26 and at the Kunming-Montreal COP15 summit in December 2022.

The Government has announced large sums for programmes on climate and nature, amounting most recently to £11.6 billion with £1.5 billion earmarked for deforestation. However, the Committee has heard concerns that  there is a lack of transparency over how this investment will be spent. The Committee is therefore calling for clarity from Ministers as to how the money will be used to support activities to halt and reverse deforestation.

The Committee was alarmed to hear from Global Witness that one person is killed every other day defending land and the environment. Indigenous peoples are protectors of the world’s forests and can possess detailed knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem trends. It is therefore critical that they are facilitated to participate fully in negotiations to address deforestation activity.  

To fulfil its commitment to put environmental sustainability measures at the heart of global production and trade, the Government must ensure that biodiversity considerations are more consistently applied into its trade agreements and operations. EAC therefore repeats its earlier calls for sustainability impact assessments to be conducted for all future trade agreements. Ministers must also develop strategies to monitor effectively and deliver environmental net gains in the UK’s international activity, including gains through halting and reversing deforestation.

Chair comment

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: 

“UK consumption is having an unsustainable impact on the planet at the current rate. UK markets must not be flooded with products that threaten the world’s forests, the people whose livelihoods rely on them and the precious ecosystems that call them home. Yet despite the recent commitment before and at COP28 to invest more in reforestation measures and The Amazon Fund to help halt the speed of global deforestation, the UK needs to take tangible steps to turn the dial at home.

“The Government’s ambition and stated commitment at COP26 to halt deforestation by 2030 was very welcome: but it is not on track now. Its legislation for a regime to require certain products to be certified as ‘sustainable’ before they can be sold in UK markets was welcome: but the implementing legislation has still not come forward. There is little sense of urgency about getting a rapid grip on the problem of deforestation, which needs to match the rhetoric.

“Countries all around the world contribute to deforestation, and the international community of course needs to do much more to tackle deforestation. Yet on some measures the intensity of UK consumption of forest-risk commodities is higher than that of China: this should serve as a wake-up call to the Government. To demonstrate genuine global leadership in this critical area, the UK must demonstrate domestic policy progress, and embed environmental and biodiversity protections in future trade deals.”

Further information

Image credit: Gabriel Sainhas/UK Parliament