An EU plan to limit the scope of a law to tackle deforestation is based on flawed data, according to scientists whose work was used by the European Commission.
In a critique of the commission’s data shared with the Guardian, four researchers say a decision to exclude rubber from the scope of the EU’s upcoming anti-deforestation law may be misguided.
Preventing the felling and degradation of the world’s great forests is a central part of the EU’s plan to tackle the climate emergency, with a long-awaited draft law to be published days after the end of UN Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow. The row over the scope of the law could cause embarrassment to the EU, which likes to present itself as a global leader on climate action.
Intended to be a legal landmark, the regulation would compel companies to ensure they are not bringing products that drive deforestation, such as palm oil and soy, into the EU market of 450 million consumers. Previous EU laws have relied on compliance with local laws. The problem with that approach is that not all deforestation is illegal. For instance, Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has dismantled numerous forest safeguards.
A leaked draft of the regulation to tackle deforestation seen by the Guardian reveals that some products that raise environmental concerns, such as rubber and maize, will be excluded.
The decision to exclude rubber was partly based on academic research that assessed the risk of deforestation posed by eight commodities including soy, beef, palm oil and wood. EU officials concluded that maize and rubber accounted for only a small fraction of deforestation, while overall trade in these goods is large, meaning that “a very large effort” would generate “little return in terms of curbing deforestation driven by EU consumption”.
But the academics have hit back at how their research was used, pointing to inconsistencies in the commission’s data, including different time periods for measuring trade patterns of the commodities. Another more crucial inconsistency, they say, is that officials counted many more processed products for rubber compared with other commodities, meaning the value of rubber to the EU economy is overstated.
“It’s really not a logical choice to keep it out,” said Thomas Kastner, a senior scientist at Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and lead author of the note, which was co-written with colleagues at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden. “If you try to be as consistent as possible with the commodities, [the case for excluding rubber] is not so clear any more.”
The EU has already been criticised for favouring a narrow definition of forests that would fail to protect unique biodiverse regions such as the fragile Cerrado grasslands and Pantanal wetlands in South America.
In recent days, activists from around the world have come to Brussels to urge EU regulators to think again.
Amourlaye Touré, an environmental campaigner with the NGO Mighty Earth in Ivory Coast, said he had found evidence of rubber farmers moving into protected forests after a 2017 agreement between cocoa growers and the government not to fell trees for cocoa. He recently found a large rubber plantation near the village of Djidoubaye in western Ivory Coast, an agricultural region famed for its cocoa. “We were just looking for deforestation caused by cocoa and we found deforestation caused by rubber.”
Kastner said that if the EU regulation covered more commodities, it would be easier to avoid such perverse effects. “Of course it’s good the EU is taking [deforestation] more seriously … But I think it has to be done carefully and especially to avoid situations where you just move the problem around, but not contributing to lower deforestation,” he said.
Gina Méndez, who founded the Call of the Forests, a Bolivian NGO, said a tougher EU law could be a gamechanger for ecosystems under threat in her country. “It would be so useful for us to sit with our government and say: ‘Here guys, there is a big market. If we produce sustainably we are not going to have any problems accessing this market.’”
Bolivia is rated as one of the top five deforested countries in the world, after the former president Evo Morales embarked on a big expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forests. Incentives for slash-and-burn farming to create arable land have contributed to devastating wildfires that consumed at least 5.3m hectares (13m acres) of forest and savannah in 2019 alone.
Méndez, a former mayor of Santa Cruz who was also part of the Mighty Earth delegation, is concerned the EU regulation could encourage more land clearance in Bolivia – farmers could move into less protected savannahs if they cannot clear forests. When a soy moratorium was introduced in the Amazon, she said, Brazilian companies began targeting Bolivian forests and grasslands. “They wanted no regulations. In Bolivia … we see Brazilian companies bulldozing our forests.” Now she fears the EU regulation could lead to similar perverse effects.
Delara Burkhardt, a German social democrat MEP who works on deforestation, said it would be a mistake to limit the regulation to a narrow definition of forests that fails to protect other wild places. “We don’t have time to go through trial and error. We have to make sure that we have a broad regulation that really protects all valuable ecosystems.”
Along with the chair of the European parliament’s environment committee, Pascal Canfin, she has written to the commission calling for a rethink, asking it to broaden ecosystem protection and increase the commodities covered by the law.
“We the European Union have a responsibility for the destruction of forests and valuable ecosystems outside the European Union. This regulation is like the external dimension of the green deal,” she said, referring to the EU’s climate plan. “We can’t only look at how the European Union can become carbon neutral, but also how our way of production, consumption impacts outside of Europe.”
The European Commission said it did not comment on leaked documents.