Cicero, an independent Oslo-based think tank, identified beef and soy as the two main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon. Therefore governments may be undermining their efforts to protect the rainforest by sanctioning large-scale trade and consumption of the foodstuffs, the report said.
The authors estimated the CO2 emissions caused by deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 1990 to 2010 and correlated that with deforestation driven by demand for land for cattle and soybeans.
A total of 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2, or 30% of the carbon emissions associated with deforestation in the last decade, was exported from Brazil. Of this, 29% were due to soybean production and 71% due to cattle ranching, said the study, which was funded by the Norwegian Research Council.
“Governments might be contributing indirectly to deforestation while trying to protect the forests”, Jonas Karstensen, the study's main author and a researcher at Cicero, told EurActiv.
Many of the governments who sanction imports of Brazilian beef and soy are signatories - and therefore funders - of the United Nations programme on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD).
Over recent years, researchers have begun to reevaluate CO2 emissions, allocating them to countries where the products are consumed rather than produced.
“With a consumption perspective, the share of responsibility for deforestation is divided among the global consumers. What, in one perspective is Brazil’s problem, is now a global problem”, Karstensen said in a statement.
The authors suggested better labeling or information about imports to guide consumers.
European Commission Climate Spokesman Isaac Valero-Ladron said the EU has raised the issue of sustainable agriculture with its trading partners, such as Brazil.
Valero-Ladron told EurActiv in an email: "The Commission and EU Member States are fully aware of this issue and have raised it in the context of their participation in leading international negotiations and initiatives...
"Trade restrictions however do not seem to be a viable solution: they could quickly hamper development and be deemed incompatible with WTO rules. Instead the Commission and other governments (US, UK, Norway) seek solutions together with the private sector on the supply side: Public support could be granted for developing or promoting labeling schemes for sustainable ("deforestation free") agricultural production (for example in Brazil)."
Europe down, Asia up
The share of emissions linked to beef and soybeans that was exported to Europe has fallen slightly, while Asian consumption has steadily risen over the last decade, said the report, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The Asian market now has a larger share of beef and soybean emissions than the European market. The report allocates 7% of total beef emissions and 30% of total soybean emissions to Asia, driven by demand in Russia, the Middle East and China.
“According to our estimates, Asia, mainly due to China and Russia, now consumes more Brazilian soybeans and beef than the European market”, said co-author Glen Peters, of Cicero.
Over the past two decades European consumption has gone from 7% to under 6% of Brazil's exported emissions from beef.
Emissions from European consumption of soybeans rose markedly between 1998 and 2004, coinciding with increased trade between the two regions, but has returned in recent years to its 1990 level of some 20%.
“Particularly in the last decade, greater imports by emerging markets and industrialized countries have led to an increasing share of exported emissions from Brazil”, said Karstensen. “Consequently, in recent years more of Brazil’s deforestation is allocated to foreign regions”.
Brazilian consumption is responsible for the largest share of emissions from its own deforestation, contributing an average of 85% of the emissions from Brazilian beef and 50% from domestic soy over the past two decades.
But Brazilian consumption has fallen in recent years, due largely to international efforts to curb rainforest destruction.
“We believe the main reason is policy enforcement in Brazil. They are monitoring the rainforest via satellites, trying to reduce deforestation as much as they can. They receive funding from a number of countries through mechanisms such as REDD but at the same time are consuming beef and soy. It is of international interest to try to highlight these indirect contributions”, Karstensen told EurActiv.
Deforestation of Brazil's Amazon region fell by 27% to 4656.8km² between August 2011 and July 2012 from the same period a year earlier, the Brazilian Environment Ministry said in November.