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Forest protection(ism)? Perceptions of the European Deforestation Regulation

28 April 2023 | Back to news list

The EUDR aims to halt EU-driven deforestation worldwide. Responses reflect the struggle between environmental interests and political power conflicts.

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The European Parliament adopted the European Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) on Wednesday, April 19th2023, with an overwhelming majority of 522 votes in support of the regulation. After decades of being focused on illegal logging, the regulation constitutes a paradigm shift toward tackling agricultural-driven deforestation. It falls within the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan of 2003 and repeals the prior EU Timber regulation (EUTR). While some hail the law as a significant milestone in the global fight against deforestation, others have condemned it as "protectionist" and "colonialist." The regulation reflects the continual balancing act between environmental interests and political power conflicts.

Acknowledging the EUs responsibility

Combating deforestation is critical in the fight against climate change. Since 1990, 420 million acres of forest have been lost due to deforestation worldwide, an area larger than the European Union. Emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use are the second biggest cause of climate change after burning fossil fuels, accounting for 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions (2007-2016). About 11% can be accounted for deforestation, while the remaining 12% are direct emissions from agricultural production such as livestock and fertilizers.

Despite the fact that most deforestation occurs beyond the EU's borders, the EU market is directly responsible for deforestation on the demand side. Agricultural expansion to produce commodities such as soy, cattle or palm oil has been highlighted as the primary cause of deforestation, accounting for about 90% of global deforestation between 2000 and 2018. The EU is estimated to be responsible for 16% of deforestation embodied in international trade in 2017, which is only second to China with 24%. The new legislation is intended to reduce the Union's contribution to global deforestation and forest degradation by ensuring deforestation-free supply chains.

Satellite data to ensure deforestation-free supply chains

The EU Deforestation Regulation seeks to reduce the EU's role in deforestation and forest degradation. It focuses on seven commodities – cattle, timber, palm oil, soy, cocoa, coffee, and rubber – as well as some derived products including leather, chocolate and furniture. The addition of maize was unsuccessful because of the agricultural lobby's opposition. Companies placing these commodities on the EU market or exporting them from the EU must ensure that they are deforestation-free and produced in compliance with the relevant legislation of the country of production. Each product must include the geolocation of all plots of land on which the relevant commodities were grown. Using satellite data, it is then possible to determine whether a piece of land has been deforested. Any deforestation or forest degradation on a plot of land after 31 December 2020 automatically disqualifies all products originating from these plots from the EU market.

A response to global campaigns against deforestation

For years civil society organizations (CSOs) from all around the world have campaigned for stronger legislation to end deforestation. Under the WWF-led hashtag #Together4Forests, more than 210 NGOs joined forces. The Open Public Consultation by the Commission in 2020 received almost 1.2 million responses – mainly from NGOs and business associations offering opinions and expertise. Most of these stakeholders agreed on the need for an EU deforestation-free definition as well as legally binding options, such as mandatory due diligence and mandatory public certification. The EUDR has been well-received by this camp as “a historic deal on a new law that will keep products linked to deforestation off the EU market!”.

Great news! The European Parliament has officially backed the EU's new law to ban products that come from destroyed or degraded forests

This is a huge first step to cut the impact of the EU's consumption on nature around the world#Together4Forests

— Greenpeace EU (@GreenpeaceEU) April 19, 2023

Barking up the wrong tree?

Critics, however, are concerned that the EUDR will only lead to a greenwashing of the EU’s supply chain, rather than targeting the root causes of deforestation. A risk the regulation has not solved is that products continue to drive deforestation but are just sold to other consumer markets. Malaysia already announced it may stop palm oil exports to the EU in response to the regulation. Furthermore, other wooded lands such as parts of the Cerrado in Brazil are not covered under the law’s definition of ‘deforestation-free’. This bears the risk that expansions merely shift into these areas. The regulation does however provide for its geographic scope to be regularly reviewed and revised. An expansion to other wooded lands can thus still be possible in the future.

Other voices have condemned the regulation as colonialist. Discontent is directed especially against the fact that the EU is unilaterally deciding on the definitions for “deforestation” and “forest degradation” and passes down the costs of compliance to its suppliers. Concerns are that smallholder farmers will be excluded from the EU market due to the legislation, threatening their livelihood and economic development.

Most vocal in criticizing the EUDR have been Indonesia and Malaysia, claiming the legislation to be “protectionist” and “discriminatory”. The EUDR stipulates a benchmarking system, classifying countries (or regions) into low, standard, and high risk of producing commodities in accordance with the deforestation-free requirements. For low-risk countries, operators may follow a simplified due diligence procedure, while operators in high-risk countries experience enhanced scrutiny. Despite several criteria for classification, the Commission enjoys a considerable margin of discretion in differentiating between countries and regions. Operators fear a competitive disadvantage based upon this classification. In response, Indonesia plans to file a complaint at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) due to this potentially discriminatory nature of the regulation. Furthermore, the EUDR was seen as a breach of promises made by the EU under the previous legislation (EUTR) targeted at illegal logging. This risks the erosion of trust in the EU as a reliable (trading) partner.

Adopting a more cooperative approach

Overall, the EUDR has been welcomed as a crucial step in the fight against deforestation, as it acknowledges the EU's responsibility for deforestation caused by demand-side activities. However, there are several serious shortcomings to the regulation, and its perceived colonialist and discriminatory nature has caused concern among several countries and stakeholders. Upon pressure from CSOs and the European Parliament, the EUDR requires the EU to build a strategic framework for partnerships with producer countries in its implementation, which provides the opening to develop a more cooperative approach. To be truly effective, the EU must take up such cooperative routes and invest in mutual partnerships to ensure that the EUDR achieves its intended goal of curbing deforestation worldwide.

Katharina Weber is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Doctoral Fellow at the University of Amsterdam and Luiss Guido Carlo University