The UK’s contribution to tackling global deforestation – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

Related inquiry: Sustainable timber and deforestation

Date Published: 4 January 2024

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Deforestation is a key driver of both climate change and biodiversity loss. Forests host 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and support the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people. If protected and restored globally, forests could provide up to 37% of the greenhouse gas mitigation required to ensure a good chance of stabilising warming to below 2˚C between now and 2030.

Globally, deforestation threatens irreplaceable biodiverse habitats and contributes 11% of global carbon emissions, surpassing those from aviation and cement production. Around 90% of deforestation is driven by land-use change to agriculture for the production of forest-risk commodities including cattle, soy, palm oil, cocoa, rubber and coffee.

Deforestation and biodiversity loss have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of local communities, including indigenous peoples. 25% of the world’s total population, and 90% of the world’s population who live in extreme poverty, depend on forests for some part of their livelihood.

Indigenous peoples play an important role in protecting the around 80% of the world’s biodiversity globally, despite making up just 5% of the world’s population. Through their direct dependence on their local ecosystems and inter-generational knowledge, indigenous peoples and local communities can possess detailed knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem trends and are important contributors to the governance of biodiversity from local to global levels.

Indigenous peoples reliant on forests for their livelihoods often suffer directly from the pressures of expansion of agricultural frontiers and of the production of commodities such as mining, logging, and energy. This is impacted by the fact that they often only have customary tenure rights to the land they live on: it is often difficult for indigenous and other local communities to secure their land rights in the face of violence, retribution and historical marginalisation.

The UK’s contribution to deforestation

The UK is a significant consumer of commodities linked to deforestation. A study by the WWF and RSPB estimated that UK imports of just 7 ‘forest risk’ commodities—soy, cocoa, palm oil, beef and leather, paper, rubber, and timber—account for a land footprint equivalent to 88% of the UK in size every year. The same study found that over 40% of the UK’s overseas land footprint was in countries with high or very high risk of deforestation, weak governance arrangements and poor labour standards. While the UK is only the 15th largest contributor to tropical deforestation in global terms, the intensity of UK consumption (in terms of footprint per tonne) is higher than that of China.

The Global Resource Initiative (GRI) Taskforce was set up by the Government in 2019 to establish the UK as a leader on supply chain sustainability but was disbanded in 2022. Before its disbandment, the GRI Taskforce recommended that the Government support the development of a monitoring, measurement and reporting framework which, now created, can provide a holistic view of the environmental pressure exerted overseas by the UK’s consumption. The main commodities driving UK’s contribution to tropical and subtropical deforestation are cattle, palm oil, industrial roundwood and soybeans. The UK’s tropical deforestation impact is biggest in Brazil and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Government should continue to fund the development of a monitoring, measurement and reporting framework for UK consumption, and should use its international influence to promote greater data disclosure on deforestation activity.

The UK public sector is a major purchaser of food and catering services for central and local government and state-run schools, nurseries, hospitals, care homes, canteens, prisons and the military. A 2006 report estimated that public spending on food and catering amounted to £3.2 billion—2.1% of total procurement spend, or about 10% of that of total UK catering sector. The Global Resource Initiative suggests that government can therefore be an effective lever for driving demand for sustainably sourced products. Through the Government Buying Standards (GBS) and the Timber Procurement Policy (TPP) the Government has set out requirements for sustainable palm oil and timber (and wider wood products including paper) respectively, in line with commitments to buying greener products and services under the Greening Government Commitments. However, these requirements do not extend to other agricultural commodities: nor do they extend to public sector procurement outside central government departments, executive agencies and non-departmental bodies. Each standard should be made mandatory for all large public sector purchasing bodies.

The UK’s proposed due diligence system under the Environment Act 2021

The UK proposes to reduce its deforestation impact through continuing current regulation of the import of timber and timber products, and establishing a due diligence system. This due diligence system aims to assure the sustainability of timber and other forest-risk commodity supply chains.

The UK Timber Regulations, like the current EU Timber Regulation, focus on the legality of timber imports rather than the sustainability of the forestry practices. This is also the proposed approach for the UK’s due diligence system. This approach has been criticised, as imported products do not have to be ‘deforestation-free’: it is said to provide perverse incentives for producer countries to deregulate and remove laws that provide legal protection to areas of forest and other natural ecosystems. The Government should bring forward proposals to amend Schedule 17 to the Environment Act to place all deforestation activity within scope of the due diligence regime. The regime should be accompanied by capacity-building activity in third countries to bolster measures to address deforestation activity.

The Global Resource Initiative taskforce recommended that the due diligence obligation should require in-scope businesses address human rights risks in their supply chains. This would bring the regulation in line with the EU: under the incoming EU anti-deforestation regime companies will have to verify compliance with relevant legislation of the country of production, including in respect of legislation on human rights, and will be required to ensure that the rights of concerned indigenous peoples and local communities have been respected in the commodity’s production.

The publication in December 2023 of the proposed scope of the Schedule 17 regulations for forest risk commodities is welcome: but no timetable has been set for publication and agreement of the necessary secondary legislation. This must be addressed without further delay, and all major forest risk commodities must be brought within scope. Businesses in the financial sector must also be brought within scope of the regime.

Global agreements to tackle deforestation

Over the past decade a number of global agreements have been made to tackle deforestation, including but not limited to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and the Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue, both signed at COP26 in November 2021. The Declaration on Forests and Land Use has been signed by 144 world leaders who represent over 90% of the world forests: they committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. The FACT Dialogue brings together the largest producers and consumers of internationally traded agricultural commodities in order to protect forests and other ecosystems while promoting trade and development.

Further progress has been made, most recently at COP27, the Convention on Global Biodiversity COP in Montreal in December 2022, and at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. The UK must lead by example, fulfilling its part in the commitments made: mobilisation of the finance to back international commitments will be crucial.

Global cooperation to tackle deforestation

Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are legally binding trade agreements between the European Union (EU)/UK and a timber-producing country outside the EU. The purpose of a VPA is to ensure that timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources. Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) is the European Union’s programme to reduce illegal logging by strengthening sustainable and legal forest management, improving governance, and promoting trade in legally produced timber and work through VPAs. The EU’s new Deforestation Regulation will largely replace the FLEGT licensing system and VPAs, but they are nevertheless retained in recognition of some of the valuable work that is ongoing under those initiatives. The Regulation says that work has been especially positive ‘in terms of enhanced stakeholders’ participation and improved forest governance.’ For timber products, a FLEGT licence will be sufficient to demonstrate that the timber has been produced in compliance with the laws of the producer country.

Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are vital protectors of forests but are themselves victims of the negative effects of deforestation activity. It is crucial to ensure the full and meaningful participation of IPLCs in negotiations to address deforestation activity. Security of tenure rights for IPLCs is essential to measures to address deforestation, and the UK Government can make a significant contribution to ensuring security of tenure. FCDO must continue to pursue this in its development programming and in promoting the inclusion of IPLC representatives in all relevant global and national negotiations.

In order to have maximum impact on efforts to halt and reverse deforestation, the UK’s engagement must extend to major consumers of forest-risk commodities in other markets. Ministers must take the opportunities presented in bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations to encourage consistently high environmental and social standards, so as to accelerate the transition to sustainable supply chains which minimise deforestation risk. The Government must develop strategies for the effective monitoring and delivery environmental net gains, including gains through halting and reversing deforestation, in its negotiations for and implementation of the UK’s trade deals.