Deforestation: causes and how the EU is tackling it
Find out what causes deforestation and how new EU legislation is set to limit the importation of goods produced on deforested land.
The rate of forest loss around the world is alarming. Some 420 million hectares of forest were lost due to deforestation between 1990 and 2020, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, an area the size of the EU.
Deforestation is the destruction of forests so the land can be put to other uses. Forest degradation is a more gradual process related to unsustainable harvesting that causes a loss of forests' capacity to produce wood or support biodiversity.
These processes take place mainly in the three major forest basins of the Amazon (South America), Congo (Central Africa) and Southeast Asia. The opposite process is taking place in the EU, where forests increased 10% between 1990 and 2020.
With forests covering 31% of the global land surface, they are home to most of Earth's terrestrial biodiversity. They also act as carbon sinks, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and provide a vital source of income for about 25% of the world’s population, with a large part of the land traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples.
What are the causes of deforestation and forest degradation?
Deforestation and forest degradation are mainly due to human activities and affect people all over the world.
Agriculture is the main driver of deforestation in all regions except Europe.
Forests being converted into cropland is the main driver of forest loss. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it causes at least 50% of global deforestation, mainly for oil palm and soybean production.
Livestock grazing is responsible for almost 40% of global deforestation.
In Europe, converting to cropland represents about 15% of deforestation and 20% is due to livestock grazing.
Urban and infrastructure development, including construction and road expansion represent the third biggest cause of global deforestation, accounting for slightly more than 6% of the total. In Europe it is the main cause of deforestation.
Over-exploitation of wood resources
Other damaging activities related to human activities include overexploitation of wood, including for fuel and illegal or unsustainable logging.
Climate change is both a cause and a consequence of deforestation and forest degradation. The extreme events it triggers, such as fires, droughts and floods, affect forests. In turn, forest loss is harmful for the climate, as forests play a significant role in providing clean air, regulating the water cycle, capturing CO2, preventing biodiversity loss and soil erosion.
The EU’s consumption of goods produced on deforested lands
Much of the tropical forests converted to agricultural use goes to produce globally traded goods.
EU consumption accounts for about 10% of global deforestation, mostly palm oil and soya, which account for more than two thirds.
According to the European Commission's impact assessment, these are the main products imported by the EU from deforested land:
- Palm oil 34%
- Soya 32.8%
- Wood 8.6%
- Cocoa 7.5%
- Coffee 7%
- Rubber 3.4%
- Maize 1.6%
The new EU regulation on deforestation-free products
Deforestation and forest degradation have an impact on the EU’s environmental objectives such as combating climate change and biodiversity loss, but also on human rights, peace and security. That is why the EU strives to combat global forest loss.
In July 2021, the Commission presented the New EU Forestry Strategy 2030, which aims to increase the quantity and quality of EU forests and promote their role as carbon sinks.
What is covered by the new law?
The new law applies to products such as palm oil, soy, cocoa, coffee, livestock and timber, as well as derivative products like beef, leather and printed paper products, furniture, cosmetics and chocolate.
Companies will also have to check these products comply with human rights standards and to ensure indigenous peoples’ rights are respected.
Parliament broadened the definition of forest degradation to include the conversion of primary forests or naturally regenerating forests into plantation forests or other wooded land.
The Commission classify countries into low, standard or high-risk. Companies will have to perform simplified checks on products from lower-risk countries. If companies fail to carry out controls they could be fined up to 4% of their total annual turnover in the EU.
The rules will enter into force once they have been formally endorsed by the Council.