With environment issues rising quickly up the EU agenda, it’s time to get trade and ecological policies into coherent alignment.
From 2004 to 2017, an area of the globe larger than Germany was lost to deforestation—43 million hectares of forest disappeared, for good. And the European Union is partly to blame. A recent WWF report highlights the causal relationship between global deforestation and EU imports, linking 10 per cent of all deforestation to its demand for various products.
At a climate summit in Paris in January, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, renewed the call to tackle deforestation, viewing forests as a crucial defender in the global fight against climate change. Not only are forests home to the vast majority of wildlife but they also serve as natural carbon regulators: each year forests absorb one-third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels.
Yet deforestation is occurring at alarming rates in developing countries, as they make room for soy, beef, cocoa, coffee and palm-oil plantations—the lifeblood of many emerging economies. Many of these products contribute to the EU’s problem of ‘imported deforestation’.
Hypocrisy and deflection
Although the EU is putting in place measures to address deforestation at home, pressure is mounting to address its culpability in global deforestation. Fully 87 per cent of EU citizens believe laws should prevent products contributing to deforestation being sold in the EU. What such laws would look like is unclear but the EU should at least avoid repeating past hypocrisy and deflection.
Take palm oil. The EU waged war on Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil for its connection to deforestation and pledged to ban the vegetable oil by 2030. Palm-oil imports were replaced with coconut, rapeseed and soybean oil, which require four to ten times more land—and more fertilisers!—to produce the same amount of oil. Ultimately, the EU’s boycott of palm oil actually contributed to more deforestation and pollution.
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Meanwhile, the bloc continues to import the biggest culprits: beef and soy. Together, these contribute over two-thirds of deforestation in tropical rainforests across Latin America. The EU’s disjointed approach—strong legislation to limit palm-oil imports while increasing beef imports—makes no environmental sense.
Since the 1970s, Latin America has witnessed a horrendous 94 per cent decline in wildlife. This is nowhere more serious than in the Amazon, where deforestation, particularly in Brazil—stimulated by the populist presidency of Jair Bolsonaro—has surged to a 12-year high. Now scientists warn the Amazon is not merely on the verge of a tipping-point but rapidly approaching a stage beyond recovery.
Yet while 80 per cent of the Amazon’s deforestation is directly connected to beef, it is still widely consumed across Europe with little scrutiny. The EU-Mercosur trade deal, a proposed free-trade arrangement between the south-American trade bloc and the EU, will only increase beef imports from Amazon countries.
If the deal were to pass it would give countries such as Brazil the green light to continue on a path of environmental destruction in the name of profit. It has however yet to be approved—mainly due to a backlash from countries, such as France, rightly critical on the question of deforestation.
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It’s not simply a matter, though, of blaming Brazil or condemning deforestation through boycotts and new laws targeting certain commodities. Having had the benefit of consuming so much carbon on its pathway to wealth, the EU now sits on a pedestal of self-righteousness, criticising developing countries which cannot afford to take a sustainable path.
For example, the EU plans to impose a carbon tax, which would tax foreign imports on their carbon footprint—a move which would undercut African, Asian and central-American industries which do not yet have the means to make the transition to renewable energy. Most detrimentally, the plan includes no support for green initiatives, limiting chances for environmental and economic equity.
Instead of this incoherent approach to addressing the climate crisis, the EU needs to do more to assist the developing world to embrace an adaptable, sustainable path, through policies and measures which would help these states abandon fossil fuels in a realistic and economical way. The EU needs a more consistent approach to the environment and sustainable development—domestically and abroad.
If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it’s that our relationship with nature is symbiotic and, if abused, dangerous. Now, more than ever, is time for the EU to examine holistically the policies and deals it’s trying to enforce.
Trade cannot come at the cost of the planet.