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The Environment Bill is a unique opportunity to adopt world-leading rules to tackle deforestation

A new mandatory due diligence clause in the Environment Bill would provide a powerful example of UK leadership and could galvanise other countries to address deforestation, says Oliver Heald MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

We must step up our efforts to protect natural habitats around the world.

As we start to ease the coronavirus lockdown, the world must learn the scientific lessons from the outbreak and take steps to make similar pandemics less likely in future.

Scientists have found evidence that the destruction of natural habitats enables more animal-borne viruses to jump into human populations, by increasing contact between wildlife and humans. Similar evidence was found linking habitat loss to the Ebola and SARS outbreaks, yet no concerted action was taken.

This time must be different. 

In the aftermath of this crisis, we must step up our efforts to protect and restore these natural habitats around the world.

A key priority should be halting deforestation, which is in part driven by the UK’s consumption of certain imported commodities, such as soya and beef.

We must take more responsibility for the environmental impact of these activities overseas.

Many of us have seen the David Attenborough documentary, Seven Worlds One Planet, which showed a number of key species under threat around the world. Our actions here in the UK are actually contributing to that environmental harm.

As well as taking action to protect and restore biodiversity here at home, we have a duty to act overseas too.

Over the past year, the fires raging in the Amazon, California, and then Australia brought into stark relief the immediate threats facing the world’s forests and their significance for the climate and biodiversity.

Yet these forests remain under continuous pressures.

Over a quarter of global deforestation is associated with the production of agricultural commodities, like soy, palm oil, beef and timber.

This can be as high as 78% in South East Asia and 56% in South America. 

Conservation charities WWF and RSPB have found that UK imports of commodities associated with deforestation take up an area of land more than half the size of the UK.

UK-based financial institutions have been the single biggest source of international finance for six of the most harmful agri-business companies involved in deforestation in Brazil, the Congo Basin and Papua New Guinea - providing a staggering £5 billion over the last six years, according to Global Witness. 

Some UK businesses are already leading the way with voluntary commitments to eliminate deforestation. But too many are not doing enough.

The Global Resource Initiative, a commission established by the government made up of businesses, experts and civil society, recently published a report calling for stronger action to green supply chains.

They found that the last decade of voluntary commitments from the private sector have not created the systemic change needed to reverse this devastating trend, and concluded that regulation must be introduced.

The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle global deforestation, through DFID funded projects, international diplomacy and the UK timber regulation which prohibits the import of illegal timber and requires companies to undertake checks on their supply chains.

However, if we are to truly address the UK’s global deforestation footprint, one option that merits serious consideration is mandatory due diligence. 

Just because habitats are being destroyed beyond our shores, does not mean we are not responsible.

Mandatory due diligence would compel companies and financial institutions to check and mitigate deforestation in their supply chains.

This would see finance redirected towards sustainable commodities and supply chains that will be more resilient in the face of future threats, be they health- or climate-related.

This would also help level the playing field by ensuring that businesses who disregard the impact of their operations on the environment do not undercut others who are making efforts to minimise their environmental impact.

This includes British beef farmers, who adhere to world-leading standards in animal welfare and environmental protections, and who face unfair competition from imported produce. 

Mandatory due diligence legislation would also help to create a predictable business environment, providing clarity on the expectations of businesses and standardise processes to manage deforestation-related risks.

This would not only see the UK setting the global standard, it would also provide consistent expectations to businesses. 

Next year, there will be major international summits on climate change and biodiversity.

The UK will host the one on climate change in Glasgow.

This new deforestation obligation would provide a powerful example of UK leadership and could galvanise other countries to address deforestation.

We have a unique opportunity with the UK’s ground-breaking Environment Bill going through Parliament at the moment to adopt bold, world-leading rules to tackle deforestation. 

Just because habitats are being destroyed beyond our shores, does not mean we are not responsible.

As well as taking action to protect and restore biodiversity here at home, we have a duty to act overseas too.

Out of this crisis, the world must make repairing our relationship with nature a priority.


Oliver Heald is Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire

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