Explained: How the EU plans to ban deforestation-related products

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In another step to curb the accelerating pace of man-made climate change, Brussels has set its sights on the chocolate we eat, the coffee we drink and the leather we wear.

Under new rules unveiled on Wednesday, the European Commission plans to ban the sale of agricultural products made on deforested and degraded land.

The initial list of targeted foods covers soybeans, beef, palm oil, cocoa and coffee, as well as wood.

The move, designed in accordance with the European Green Deal, aims to ensure that forests around the world remain intact and continue to absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

While forests are often described as the lungs of the earth, their mismanagement and abuse is a major driver of global warming. When a business cuts down a forest or drains a wetland to make room for raising livestock or harvesting timber, the felled trees release the carbon they have stored into the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land uses, including livestock. Over the past 30 years, the world lost 420 million hectares of forest – an area larger than the entire EU – to deforestation, according to the United Nations.

These massive and dangerous dimensions have propelled the phenomenon to the forefront of climate action. Among the agreements concluded at COP26 was a major commitment by more than 100 countries to end deforestation and land degradation by 2030.

The EU, one of the signatories, is now trying to give new impetus to this global movement with a draft regulation to ensure that products sold to European consumers are strictly deforestation-free.

“This proposal is truly revolutionary,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, told reporters when presenting the bill.

“It targets not only illegal deforestation but all deforestation caused by agricultural expansion.”

Sinkevičius stressed that the regulation will apply to “all stages of the supply chain” and will be “non-discriminatory” by treating EU exports and imports equally.

How will the regulation work in practice?

Businesses of all sizes, from multinationals to SMEs, that market the six selected products will be forced to follow the rules, which operate on a traceability system.

Companies will be asked to collect detailed information, including geographic coordinates, on the farm or plantation where their goods are produced in order to prove that they comply with regulatory requirements. This information will be submitted digitally to national regulators.

If a company does not demonstrate that its products are legal and free from deforestation, it will be prohibited from placing them anywhere in the European Single Market, which encompasses the 27 Member States as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

If the company does not follow the rules and goes ahead with the non-conforming product, the national regulator can impose penalties based on the environmental damage, confiscate the illegal merchandise, and even seize the income from its sale.

Regulators also have the right to conduct on-site inspections if they suspect wrongdoing.

To guide national authorities in their daily work, the European Commission will establish a ranking of countries broken down according to their risk of deforestation: low, standard and high. Products made in high-risk countries will be subject to more scrutiny and stricter rules.

The list will be public with the aim of guiding consumers and investors towards sustainable markets.

Brussels hopes the rules will cut carbon emissions by 32 million metric tonnes per year and act as a pressure tool to encourage similar legislation in other countries.

Will other products be targeted?

Initially, the regulation will cover six products: soybeans, beef, palm oil, cocoa, coffee and timber.

The rules also include certain derivative products, such as chocolate, cocoa powder, leather, plywood, pallet boxes, barrels and wooden frames for paintings, mirrors and photographs.

The European Commission considers that the European consumption of these products aggravates deforestation the most. According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the bloc is the world’s second largest importer of deforestation, behind China and above India and the United States.

Commissioner Sinkevičius said the list was a “political decision” and should be seen as a starting point, with the possibility of gradually adding more products, such as rubber.

For now, the regulation will cover forest-related deforestation and exclude damage resulting from the drying up of wetlands and peatlands for agricultural purposes.

When will the rules come into effect?

The draft regulation will have to be negotiated and decided by the Member States and the European Parliament. Once the two co-legislators come to an agreement, a process that can take up to two years, the rules will come into force.

However, the Commission has introduced a provision that will retroactively apply the rules to all products produced after December 2020.

France, which is set to assume the rotating EU Council presidency in January, has said it wants to prioritize the issue.

The initiative appears to enjoy strong popular support: the public consultation that preceded the Commission proposal received more than 1.2 million responses, the second most popular in EU history after that of 2018 debate on the time change.

What was the reaction to the new rules?

Environmental organizations hailed the due diligence rules as a positive step in the EU’s fight against climate change while expressing some reservations about the shortcomings of the regulation.

The bill is a “very good basis” that sets the EU apart from international allies like the US and UK, says Anke Schulmeister, head of forestry policy at WWF.

“The European Commission needs to be very flexible and react quickly to changes: what might be safe today may not be safe tomorrow,” Schulmeister told Euronews, referring to the six selected commodities.

“This law will only work if the national authorities are properly implemented.”

Schulmeister hopes the co-legislators won’t water down the text and instead strive to expand its reach to more products, like corn, poultry and dairy, and more at-risk ecosystems, like savannahs.

“Either these are empty promises or this is the way to go.”

Greenpeace EU called the bill a “glimmer of hope” and praised the traceability mechanism, but criticized the lack of provisions regarding international law and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Global Witness, Friends of the Earth Europe and the Greens in the European Parliament have expressed similar concerns about the shortcomings of the Commission proposal, such as the lack of obligations for financial entities directly involved in deforestation, but nevertheless underlined its pioneering character and its obligatory provisions.

At the same time, COPA-COGECA, the group that represents the interests of European farmers and agricultural businesses, warned that the executive’s idea of ​​classifying countries according to their risk of deforestation is “incompatible” with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and can “distort competition both in the EU market and in the world market”.

The legislation is expected to have a “phased approach in its implementation” and offer farmers a “wide range of alternatives” and an “EU plan for protein production” to reduce their dependence on imports, the Minister said. group in a press release provided to Euronews.

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