Climate crisis: New UK laws will clampdown on illegal deforestation in supply chains

But campaigners say loopholes will mean British consumers could still support firms engaged in damaging practices

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 25 August 2020 15:05 BST
Aerial view of a burning area of Amazon rainforest reserve in Para state, Brazil, on August 16, 2020
Aerial view of a burning area of Amazon rainforest reserve in Para state, Brazil, on August 16, 2020 (AFP/Getty)

New UK laws will aim to clamp down on deforestation around the world by requiring companies to show their products and supply chains are not connected to rainforests cleared illegally.

The proposed legislation would require any firms operating in the UK to show exactly where key commodities, including rubber, cocoa, soy and palm oil, came from.

Companies unable to prove the origin of their products and show that they were produced in line with local laws protecting forests, will be subject to fines.

The draft legislation has not yet set out how large the fines will be, but the government said it will aim to make it clear that illegally produced goods “have no place in the UK market, as we build back greener from coronavirus.”

The government has said it recognised protecting forests was central to tackling climate change.

According to the IPCC, deforestation accounts for 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the world’s rainforests are vital for drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it.

The vast majority of deforestation - estimated by the UK government to be around 80 per cent - is caused by the production of agricultural commodities, and up to 90 per cent of deforestation is illegal.

The government said: “The destruction and degradation of these vital habitats also increases the risk of extreme weather events, drives biodiversity loss, and exacerbates the spread of infectious diseases.”

But Greenpeace has described the government’s plans as “seriously flawed”, as the legislation would allow firms to continue to sell products into the UK if they met the rules, but would mean UK consumers would still be supporting deforestation if the companies sold products to other markets using land connected to illegal destruction of rainforests.

The legislation also comes amid calls for the government to do more to tackle the loss of the Amazon rainforest.

According to a UK-wide survey conducted by WWF, 67 per cent of people believe the government should take action to halt deforestation in the Amazon, and 81 per cent of people said there should be greater transparency of the origin of the products we import into the UK. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) said the UK should stop trading with countries that fail to protect the natural environment.

The survey also found 74 per cent of people said they were more likely to buy products which aren’t destroying the Amazon, while more than half (57%) said they would change their supermarket if a competitor could prove it was doing more to fight deforestation.

The UK’s international environment minister Lord Goldsmith, said: “We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world’s most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can’t afford not to act as a country. There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting today on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws.

“Ahead of hosting the UN Climate Change Conference next year, the UK has a duty to lead the way in combatting the biodiversity and nature crisis now upon us.”

He added: “There has been a lot of progress already to make the UK’s supply chains more sustainable, but more needs to be done. We will continue to work closely with farmers, business and governments around the world to ensure that we can protect our vital forests and support livelihoods as we build back greener from coronavirus.”

The consultation on the legislation will run for six weeks and seek responses from UK and international stakeholders and will take into consideration potential impacts on businesses and other interests, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

The announcement follows the establishment of the government's independent taskforce, the Global Resource Initiative, which was formed in 2019 to consider how the UK could “green” international supply chains.

Sir Ian Cheshire, the chair of the independent taskforce, said: “I'm delighted to see the government respond to one of the key recommendations of the Global Resource Initiative.

“Starting a discussion on how changes in UK law could help us all to reduce our global footprint. I would encourage as many people as possible to respond to this important consultation.”

Ruth Chambers, from the Greener UK coalition - which represents 13 major environmental organisations including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, WWF, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Marine Conservation Society, said: “This consultation is a welcome first step in the fight to tackle the loss of our planet's irreplaceable natural wonders such as the Amazon and in the pursuit of supply chains free from products that contribute to deforestation.

“The evidence linking deforestation with climate change, biodiversity loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases is compelling. A new law is an important part of the solution and is urgently needed.

“The proposal must now be tested thoroughly to ensure it will deliver the government's domestic and international environmental leadership ambitions.”

But in a separate statement, Greenpeace said the plans were not robust enough.

Elena Polisano, forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Defra's proposal to make it 'illegal for larger businesses to use products unless they comply with local laws to protect natural areas' is seriously flawed.

“We've all seen the way President Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest.

“There is also nothing to address the fact that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line but continue to destroy forests elsewhere which just shifts the problem into someone else's backyard.

“We will never solve this problem without tackling demand. Companies like Tesco, who sell more meat and dairy and so use more soya for animal feed than any other UK retailer, know what they need to do to reduce the impact they are having on deforestation in the Amazon and other crucial forests.

“They must reduce the amount of meat and dairy they sell and drop forest destroyers from their supply chain immediately.”

Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK said: “It's clear businesses and consumers don't want imports that wreck the planet, drive deforestation in areas like the Amazon and lead to devastating fires.

“The government must now fast-track strong, effective laws, that clean up our supply chains and show the UK can take the lead in tackling the global nature and climate crisis.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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