The proposal — which would need to be approved by the European Parliament and E.U. member states before coming into force — was hailed as “groundbreaking” action to combat the climate crisis by European Commission officials. “We can’t ask for ambitious climate policies from partners on the one hand and export pollution and support deforestation on the other,” said, Virginijus Sinkevicius, a Lithuanian European commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries.
Demand in the European Union for commodities such as beef and cocoa are “strong drivers of deforestation,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission. E.U. citizens, he said, had called for measures “to minimize the European contribution to deforestation and to promote sustainable consumption.”
The ban on materials from deforested or degraded land would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, and benefit vulnerable communities such as Indigenous populations, the commission said in a statement.
The proposal comes on the heels of the COP26 United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month, where world leaders formed an agreement that nudges countries toward near-term climate goals but failed to include targets — such as limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) — that scientists say are necessary to prevent the worst effects of global warming.
World leaders representing more than 85 percent of the world’s forests pledged at COP26 to halt deforestation by 2030. Brazil, Canada, Russia and the United States were among the countries that joined the pledge.
Deforestation and forest degradation — when a forest is not eliminated but is damaged to the point that it can no longer fully benefit people or the natural environment — are “important drivers of global warming and biodiversity loss,” the commission said. Nearly a quarter of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 to 2016 are estimated to have come from forestry and direct emissions from livestock and fertilizer production. When downed trees are burned or decay, they release carbon and are also no longer able to absorb carbon dioxide.
The proposal is “very promising,” said Holly Gibbs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on deforestation.
She said the measure has the “potential to send strong signals that one of the largest economies will not accept agricultural products connected to deforestation.” But, Gibbs noted, existing commitments against deforestation have been made by various parties, including private companies, but have yet to be fully implemented. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon continues to increase despite many promises to stop it, she said.
The measure would place exporting countries into one of three tiers of risk — low, standard and high — based on factors such as the rate of deforestation or how laws against deforestation are enforced in that country.
Specific countries were not named in the proposal’s “benchmarking” system, but a list would become publicly available if the measure is adopted, according to the proposal.
Copa-Cogeca, which represents the European agricultural industry, said the tiered system — which the proposal called a “key feature” — was “incompatible” with World Trade Organization rules. The system could have “serious consequences on the future trading relationships and distort the competition on both the EU and global market,” the group said in a statement. As a WTO member, Copa-Cogeca said, the E.U. must “fully respect” WTO rules. Representatives for the European Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Perry Stein in Brussels contributed to this report.