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Promoting sustainable forest management to mitigate climate change and reverse biodiversity loss

By Cyrille Mai Thanh, Chair of the Brussels Sustainability Club & Senior Consultant at Dentons Global Advisors

With the celebration of the International Day of Forests, today is a great opportunity to highlight the critical role of forests in mitigating climate change and reversing biodiversity loss. This year’s theme “Forests and sustainable production and consumption” is a clear message to implement policies that aim to halt deforestation.


Forests cover one third of the Earth’s land surface and about 35% of Europe. They play a vital role for both humans and the planet, going from water and nutrient cycles, to air purification and soil protection. Sustainable forest management is key to combating climate change thanks to their critical function as carbon sinks. Forests absorb twice as much carbon as they emit each year. Forests are also home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.


Yet, over 43 million hectares – the equivalent of the size of California – were deforested worldwide between 2004 and 2017. In the summer of 2019, the Amazon captured the world’s attention when over 900,000 hectares of the rainforest burned in just a few months. Efforts led by environmental groups have helped create public awareness and raise the issue high on the political agenda.


“Over 43 million hectares – the equivalent of the size of California – were deforested worldwide between 2004 and 2017.”


In July 2021, the European Commission presented its new EU Forest Strategy for 2030 laying out its plan to ensure forest restoration and reinforce sustainable forest management for climate adaptation and forest resilience. This strategy includes a roadmap for planting 3 billion additional trees in the EU by 2030, in full respect of ecological principles.


Last November, at COP26, 141 countries – representing 90% of the world’s forests – have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration emphasises the critical and interdependent roles of forests and reaffirms commitments to sustainable land use, and to the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests.


28 countries also committed to remove deforestation from the global trade of food and other agricultural products such as palm oil, soya and cocoa. To this end, the European Commission has put forward a legislative proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products which is currently being discussed in the European Parliament and the Council.


“At COP26, 141 countries – representing 90% of the world’s forests – have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.”


The proposal imposes due diligence obligations on operators placing commodities such as palm oil, soy, wood, beef, cocoa, and coffee and some derived products on the EU market, or exporting them from the EU. Member States would be responsible for enforcement, and for setting penalties in case of non-compliance.


In the European Parliament, the Environment Committee appointed MEP Christophe Hansen (EPP, Luxembourg) as rapporteur on the file in December 2021. His report should be ready in the coming days and will then be presented in the Environment Committee on 20 April and voted in Committee on 11 July. A vote in plenary session is foreseen in September 2022.


Finnish Green MEPs Heidi Hautala and Ville Niinistö consider this proposal insufficient and calls for it to be strengthened to ensure the protection of ecosystems and human rights. Overall, the Greens argue that there are some loopholes in the deforestation law such as the exclusion of rubber and maize from the scope of products or the absence of provisions targeting financial organisations involved in the destruction of nature with investments, loans or other services.


In the Council, Member States were largely positive about the Commission’s proposal although some countries including Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary expressed some reservations. Last week, EU Environment Ministers exchanged views on how to ensure an efficient and effective due diligence system in order to achieve the traceability needed to ensure that the products included in the regulation have not involved deforestation and forest degradation.


The fight against deforestation is one of the French Presidency’s priorities and France would like to accelerate discussions on the file. The next Environment Council meeting will be held on 28 June during which a common position is expected to be adopted.


European trade associations representing the forestry sector welcomed the proposal but called for a balanced text while environmental NGOs including Greenpeace, WWF, and ClientEarth continue to run campaigns aimed at reinforcing further the proposal.


Meanwhile in the private sector, companies are making pledges to halt deforestation. For instance, French insurer AXA pledged to invest 1.5 billion euros to support sustainable forest management as part of new commitments to fight deforestation and preserve biodiversity. Several European supermarket chains announced they will pull out meat products linked to deforestation from their stores.


“French insurer AXA pledged to invest 1.5 billion euros to support sustainable forest management”


IKEA aims to become ‘Forest Positive’ by 2030 and will ramp up its efforts towards improving forest management. The Swedish company wants to identify and secure that all raw materials sourced through its supply chain are not contributing to deforestation or the conversion of natural ecosystems by 2030. All wood used in their products will be sourced from responsibly managed forests which do not contribute to deforestation.


Food major Unilever unveiled its action plan for Zero Deforestation and committed to a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023 focusing first on its supply chains for palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa.


In sum, strong political momentum has been gathered both at European and global level on the issue and has encouraged policymakers to put in place policies that better promote sustainable forest management. At EU level, the legislative train has already left the station, now is the time for lawmakers to define the ambition of the legal framework.