26 November 2013
Duncan Brack

Duncan Brack

Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources


Deforestation is a continuing global challenge. Although its rate has slowed in recent years, a combination of private-sector initiatives, government regulation and consideration in trade agreements is needed to continue this trend.

A net five million hectares of forest per year (an area the size of Costa Rica) was lost in the decade 2000−10. One of the main causes of forest loss is the conversion of land for agriculture which, studies suggest, has been responsible for up to 80 per cent of global deforestation in recent decades. While much of the crops and livestock produced on converted forest land are consumed in the countries of production, international trade is still important: an estimated one-third of the land that is deforested is used for commodities produced for export.

EU member states are major culprits: a recent study identified the EU as the largest global net importer of ‘embodied deforestation’. The main imports are soya (used mainly for biofuels, animal feed and human consumption) and palm oil (used for biofuels, as a cooking oil and as an ingredient in a wide range of foodstuffs and cosmetics); others of significance include cattle products (beef and leather) and cocoa.

Many private-sector initiatives are already under way to reduce these impacts. The Consumer Goods Forum, for example, a global network of retailers, manufacturers and service providers, has adopted a target of achieving zero net deforestation in its membership’s supply chains by 2020.

There is a clear limit, however, to what the private sector can achieve by itself, and legislation seems likely to be needed to level the playing field for those already striving towards best practice. This prompted Chatham House to consider what government policy and regulatory options could be applied in consumer countries, building on and reinforcing voluntary measures.

One particular source of inspiration has been the efforts made in recent years to exclude illegal timber from international trade and to reduce illegal logging and improve forest governance. The wide range of measures applied has included public procurement policy, licensing systems and legal and company due diligence requirements; many have been stimulated by the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, agreed in 2003.

Studies by Chatham House, among others, suggest that the combined effects of all the measures taken by consumer and producer countries, and the industry, over the last decade or so has been positive, with a significant reduction (about 25 per cent) in illegal logging between 2000 and 2008, and a similar (30 per cent) fall in major-country imports of illegal timber from 2004 to 2008.

My report for Chatham House and Forest Trends in September, Ending Global Deforestation: Policy Options for Consumer Countries, co-authored with Rob Bailey, reaches the conclusion that several of these measures could feasibly be applied to agricultural commodities, and should be considered by governments inside and outside the EU.

Public procurement policy, for example, which has been used by several countries to source legal and sustainable timber, could be applied to many food products, including palm oil and cocoa. There is already extensive use of procurement policy for food, usually by local authorities, to purchase organic and locally-sourced products, and the UK government is currently introducing a requirement for the palm oil used in its food and catering contracts to be sustainably produced.

Bilateral agreements between producer and consumer countries have some potential, building on the experience of the voluntary partnership agreements between the EU and timber-producing countries, which have led to governance improvements, including the opening up of political space within timber-producing countries for civil society and industry to engage with decision-makers.

Free trade agreements increasingly include environmental provisions, and some recent agreements aim to promote trade in ethical and sustainable products. With the number of such agreements increasing, provisions such as these could be valuable in raising awareness of environmental issues and encouraging cooperation between countries.

Regulatory requirements for companies trading in timber products are being introduced in the form of prohibitions on illegal products and ‘due diligence’ requirements to scrutinize company supply chains. While it would be difficult to adapt these measures to trade in sustainable agricultural commodities, there is plenty of scope for governments to encourage companies to examine their supply chains through reporting requirements, and regulation is being considered within the EU. Voluntary initiatives such as the Forest Footprint Disclosure project are helping to raise awareness among companies of the value of assessing forest-related risks to their supply chains.

A key challenge for many of these approaches is how best to promote ‘deforestation-free’ commodities. Certification systems do exist for sustainable agricultural commodities but have not so far reached the same level of market penetration as their equivalents for timber, and will need to be encouraged in terms both of quality and reach.

There are, clearly, many policy options available. Our report concludes by calling for an EU Action Plan for sustainable agriculture, governance and trade, including measures such as assistance to developing countries to promote tenure reform, forest and land governance and sustainable agriculture, action to ensure timber from the illegal conversion of forest land is blocked from entry to the EU, and member state public procurement policies favouring sustainable products. The EU FLEGT Action Plan provides a good model, helping as it did to stimulate discussion, research and action across a wide range of possible policies and measures.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback