Forest protection likely to be new priority for EU Parliament

German MEP Peter Liese (EPP) hopes that the plenary will already debate the deforestation issue in September's session. Both the European Parliament environment committee (ENVI) and the European Commission want to address the issue. [Richard Whitcombe/ Shutterstock]

Large areas of forest are being cleared worldwide for the agricultural industry. Although the EU requires its contracting partners to protect the environment, it lacks the means for enforcement. Environmentalists and the European Parliament see an urgent need for action. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The protection of forests should become one of the priorities of the European Parliament in the coming months.

Contacted by EURACTIV, conservative MEP Peter Liese (EPP) confirmed that the Environment Committee (ENVI) is planning a hearing on the issue. The European Commission will also launch a legislative proposal.

“Our forests, not only in other parts of the world but also in Europe, are an essential contributor to climate protection. And on top of that, they are an economic factor,” Liese said.

The German MEP hopes that the plenary will already debate the deforestation issue in September’s session.

The background of this initiative is not only due to the increasing number of dying forests in the EU but also because of worrying forest fires in Brazil. Slash-and-burn practices of large forest areas are a consequence of the booming Brazilian agricultural industry.

The production of soya and beef requires a lot of free space, the demand for which is likely to increase with the EU-Mercosur trade deal coming into force.

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A shift in soybean expansion

In Brazil, around 65% of the deforested areas are already used as grazing land for breeding animals. The figures of the Brazilian federation of beef exporters show the industry’s growth: between 1997 and 2016, both the quantity and value of exported beef increased tenfold.

The export of soya, which is used internationally as the basis for animal feed, rose by 22%, according to the Brazilian economics ministry. Since the turn of the millennium, the cultivation area for soya has grown by 160%.

However, progress could be in sight. In 2006, the world’s largest grain traders committed themselves to no longer buying soya from land that had been cleared specifically for this purpose. Since then, according to Greenpeace estimates, less than 2% of the Amazon region’s entire soy production has come from deforested areas.

“This was an effective instrument to slow down the destruction of forests,” said Gesche Jürgens, a forest expert at Greenpeace.

“However, we also see that dynamics are shifting. Soy expansion has not been halted, but has, for example, been shifted towards savannas, where it also causes major damage,” she added.

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No planned sanctions

The EU-Mercosur deal concluded in June is not expected to change the situation. In particular, that is because the agreement does not contain a separate sustainability chapter in which the states commit themselves to the Paris climate targets.

The chapter is a “toothless tiger,” according to Jürgens.

“There are no possible sanctions if the partner does not comply with the environmental protection clauses,” said Jürgens.

Indeed, in the event of non-compliance, only consultations with concerned governments and the establishment of an expert panel are envisaged.

“The EU has good climate agreements. And at the same time, it concludes trade agreements that ignore this. That simply can’t be the case,” she added.

Criticism also comes from the Greens in the European Parliament, who reject the EU-Mercosur agreement. Brazil’s promise to recognise international climate targets would count for nothing because of economic profit, according to Martin Häusling, the Greens’ spokesman for agricultural policy issues.

In May, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cut the country’s climate budget – which had previously amounted to a mere €2.7 million – by 95%.

“How can one conclude such an ignorant free trade agreement?” Häusling wondered.

However, the EU will continue to depend on the imports of soya products for its agriculture industry. Given the rainforest’s destruction, French President Emmanuel Macron recently called on the EU to have greater “protein sovereignty” over other states and ultimately threatened to block the EU-Mercosur agreement.

According to Jürgens, another possibility would be to implement legal measures to prevent deforestation within the EU’s trade relations framework.

“For example, the EU Forest Action Plan could make it more difficult for products related to deforestation to obtain market access,” she added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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