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It’s time for the government to act on international forest destruction

Deforestation due to plant palm oil plantations, near Sandakan city, Malaysia | PA Images

Tessa Corina | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

The UK has announced a series of restorative tree-planting programmes at home, but we still play a large role in their destruction abroad

In just 13 years, an area almost double the size of the UK – around 43 million hectares – was wiped out due to deforestation, according to the WWF. These figures come weeks after a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Greenpeace Unearthed, ITV News, and the Guardian found that one million tonnes of soya used by UK livestock farmers to produce chicken, and other food, could be linked to deforestation in the Amazon. So, although pictures of burning rainforests may seem far removed, these statistics clearly demonstrate the UK’s role in driving this destruction.

Announcements of tree-planting initiatives around the globe were a key feature of 2020. At home, Boris Johnson has reeled off several announcements relating to tree planting and restoration initiatives on British soil, and nature-based solutions have been centre stage in the run up to COP26. However, amidst this increasing focus, dialogue on deforestation abroad has been relatively muted by comparison, despite being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

When trees are felled and either burned or left to rot, the carbon that was stored inside them enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Preserving existing mature trees can offer greater benefits to the climate than felling and replanting – as well as being rich in biodiversity, mature trees sequester far more CO2 than younger ones, offering irreplaceable ecological functions.

As highlighted by Global Canopy’s latest Forest 500 report, governments, financial institutions and companies have made multiple major collective commitments over the last decade which aimed to eliminate commodity driven deforestation by 2020. However, two-thirds of tropical deforestation is still linked to commodities that can cause wide-scale deforestation (also known as forest-risk commodities). As we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and the UK seeks to become a global leader in the fight against climate change, calls are intensifying for the Government to be more ambitious about decreasing our contribution to environmental destruction overseas.

Last week saw news that, following consultation last year, the Prime Minister is considering a ban on soya which has been grown on illegally deforested land. Through the Environment Bill, companies would be required to conduct due diligence on their supply chains and report on it annually. The Prime Minister also announced that the UK would spend at least £3bn of international climate finance on nature and biodiversity over five years, which includes support for projects to maintain forests and tackle the illegal timber trade and deforestation. Though these announcements illustrate the government’s understanding of the need to act on our overseas footprint, many believe that they have not gone far enough. 

Campaigners have argued that the government needs to recognise legal deforestation as a problem too, and that simply siphoning off a portion of international climate finance funds that were already committed to tacking the climate crisis is not enough.

Action is required from other sectors of society too. Recent research has highlighted the unique role that banks could play to encourage an increase in supply of soft commodities – such as palm oil, soy, beef and timber products which are responsible for the majority of deforestation caused by commercial agriculture – that are deforestation-free or forest restorative. More businesses must take greater responsibility for ensuring the resilience, traceability and sustainability of their supply chains. But action must take place alongside engagement with those communities affected by deforestation, especially Indigenous peoples, whose knowledge and stewardship are critical to delivering real progress, and whose human rights must be protected.

Though the government can be commended for their tree-planting initiatives, the threat to those rich forest habitats that already exist must not be ignored. If the government wants to lead by example, it must step up and go further to address the UK’s international contribution to climate change, and provide proposals that live up to the scale of the challenge. As the UK prepares to host COP26 this year, we must act to prevent the import of habitat destruction, and encourage other major economies to implement ambitious plans, to achieve a true global green recovery.


Tessa Corina is Dods political consultant for the environment

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