The government in November announced new rules to prevent UK businesses from using commodities linked to illegal deforestation overseas.
International environment minister Lord Goldsmith said the law represented a vital step forward in “protect[ing] the world’s precious forests”.
But new analysis from the environmental charity WWF found exemptions included in the new law mean it “may have a limited impact” on curbing deforestation linked to UK supply chains.
One major reason for this is that the current rules only apply to illegal deforestation rather than all types of deforestation.
This means that UK businesses could still use commodities linked to deforestation if the producer country deems this forest loss to be legal.
In areas of Brazil that supply soy to the UK, up to 2.1 million hectares of natural vegetation – an area larger than Wales – could be deforested under current rules, the analysis said.
“The law proposed by UK government to stop deforestation isn’t yet robust enough and must be strengthened if it is to prevent further destruction of natural ecosystems – whether legal or illegal,” said Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF.
The charity added that a focus on illegal deforestation could potentially incentivise producer countries to weaken their rules on forest conversion.
It noted that Indonesia, one of the world’s largest deforesters, in 2020 passed a law that has paved the way for the development of oil palm plantations on land where production was previously not permitted.
And Brazil, another major tropical deforester, is currently considering passing a suite of land regulation bills that could put millions of hectares of public land in the Amazon at risk.
It added that rules focusing on illegal deforestation would be harder to enforce than those centred around all types of forest loss. This is due to a lack of available data on illegal deforestation inside producer countries.
“It is possible to determine whether any producing area is or has been associated with deforestation in near real-time using satellite technology,” the report said. “However, it is rarely possible to ascertain whether that deforestation is legal or illegal.”
Another drawback of the proposed law is that it only covers forests rather than all natural ecosystems, the charity said.
In Brazil, 47 per cent of the land outside of legal protection in areas that supply soy to the UK is savannah, a type of grassland ecosystem that supports a huge diversity of species including giant anteaters, brown howler monkeys and giant armadillos, the analysis said.
The report calls on the UK government to broaden the scope of its new rules to cover both legal and illegal deforestation and all natural ecosystems.
The rules are part of the UK’s long-awaited Environment Bill, which is due to return to the House of Lords in early September.
A spokesperson for the department for environment food and rural affairs said: “A significant proportion of deforestation is illegal – close to 90 per cent in some of the world’s key forests.
“Our due diligence legislation will target this illegal deforestation and clean up the UK’s supply chains, ensuring there is no place for illegally produced commodities on our supermarket shelves.
“This is one part of a wider package of measures to improve the sustainability of our supply chains and will contribute to global efforts to protect forests and other ecosystems.”
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