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Government rejects Committee’s call to prohibit products from legal deforestation

26 March 2024

The Government has rejected the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation to prevent UK businesses from trading in products linked to deforestation, regardless of whether their production was legal. 

The Committee had recommended the Government prevent UK businesses from trading in commodities linked to UN-defined deforestation in all cases, regardless of whether the deforestation was illegal or permitted by local laws. This ‘zero-deforestation’ approach would encourage consistency in trading such commodities across UK and European markets, increasing protections for areas at risk of deforestation.

But in its response to the Committee’s report, The UK’s contribution to tackling global deforestation, the Government said it believed “the only way to achieve zero global deforestation in supply chains is to work in partnership with producer countries – and that working in partnership requires us to uphold and respect national laws.”

The Government has not set a timeline to deliver practical details of how it will regulate forest risk commodities, goods produced on land made available by clearing forests. It says it will publish and introduce planned secondary legislation under Schedule 17 to the 2021 Environment Act “as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

Ministers have nevertheless responded positively to the Committee’s recommendations on supporting indigenous peoples. The Government says it is “aware of the crucial role of indigenous peoples in the preservation of forests,” and that it is exploring how to evaluate whether Schedule 17 regulations effectively support them. It also says it agrees with the Committee that Ministers should ensure Government funding for capacity building among indigenous groups should reach grassroots organisations “directly and verifiably”.

Ministers also agree with the Committee’s recommendation to build capacity in producer countries. “On the supply side,” the response says, “the UK government continues to work with both businesses and smallholder farmers to improve sustainable practices and encourage forest-friendly business”. Examples cited include the Partnerships for Forests programme, which Ministers indicate has mobilised £1 billion in private investment into forests and brought 4.1m hectares of land under sustainable management.

The Government has rejected the Committee’s call to extend purchasing standards covering sustainable palm oil and timber to large public sector bodies outside central government, such as the National Health Services, Armed Forces and Prison Service.

At present, all UK Government departments are required to ensure products like palm oil and timber, often associated with deforestation, are sourced sustainably under the Government Buying Standards (GBS). The Government says it is “not currently considering” extending the scope of its own standards but adds that public sector bodies have their own sustainability standards and may choose to comply with the GBS if they choose.

It also says it is reviewing the current GBS for food and catering, following a consultation in the summer of 2022. It is considering whether palm oil, soy, cocoa, and coffee should be demonstrably legal and sustainable, following the Committee’s recommendation to extend GBS to all forest risk commodities. However, the Government does not state when it will announce its own response to the consultation which closed over 18 months ago.

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, said:

“The Government says it is committed to being a global leader in deforestation. While I welcome much of the detail in today’s response, especially on capacity-building and on support for indigenous peoples to address deforestation issues, there is still a great deal more to be done to make good on that ambition.

“Clearing forests to produce goods is deeply damaging whenever it takes place; it being permitted under local laws does not change that fact. UK businesses should not be trading in products linked to deforestation, as defined by the UN, if we want to provide genuine international leadership. Failing to prohibit such trade risks giving mixed signals.

“Equally, businesses cannot afford any more uncertainty. The Government must set out detailed yet practical plans to regulate forest risk commodities. To blame lack of parliamentary time as the reason for not bringing forward secondary legislation demonstrates a lack of urgency. That said, I welcome the evidence in this response of the action the Government is taking to build capacity and sustainability in producer countries.

“The public sector at home needs certainty too. If the Government will not extend buying standards to large public bodies like the NHS, will it consider strengthening guidance, to allow these bodies to make more sustainable procurement choices?” 

Further information

Image credit: Gabriel Sainhas/UK Parliament