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More than 50 scientists have warned MEPs that a high-level move to water down EU legislation on deforestation could undermine Europe’s net zero emissions plans.
European environment ministers rewrote a draft regulation last week to define “forest degradation” as the replacement of primary forest by plantations or other wooded land. In the EU, which has about 3.1m hectares of primary forest amid 159m hectares of overall forest, it would limit the law’s reach to only 2% of the total area.
While the proposal would also apply internationally, this could “hinder the legislation from tackling forest loss on EU soil and create a perception that the EU is evading its own forest-related responsibilities – instead throwing the burden on to developing countries in the tropics”, the scientists said in a letter seen by the Guardian.
Any exclusion of forest degradation from the law would “undermine the EU’s professed desire to see Europe become the first climate neutral continent by 2050” and “gravely weaken” EU efforts to bolster global conservation, the letter adds.
One of the signatories, Prof Jaboury Ghazoul from ETH Zurich, said the new definition of forest degradation would not be recognised by scientists or forest-dependent peoples.
“It ignores the considerable damage that continues to be inflicted on forests through unsustainable logging, deliberate burning, and mining, as well as road construction that fragments forests thereby facilitating further degradation,” he said.
Because it neglects the rights of forest-dependent communities, “the definition is not only untenable, it is also unjust”, he said.
Forest degradation accounts for an estimated 25% of the total emissions from tropical forest damage and is estimated to release about 2.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – roughly 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
The European Commission’s original proposal defined forest degradation as resulting from unsustainable operations that reduced the long-term biological complexity and productivity of forest ecosystems, in line with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization definition.
But one Swedish lobby paper seen by the Guardian describes such definitions as “detailed and unclear” and argues they would impose “excessive costs which cannot be justified” on small businesses.
The paper also warns of “undesired leakage effects” with timber companies relocating to areas with laxer regulations.
Campaigners, though, fear that the looser definition may allow deforestation for timber, paper and pulp to continue, while loggers could simply damage forests they want to log so that they are no longer “primary” before beginning logging.
Sini Eräjaa, Greenpeace’s EU forest campaign leader, said: “Europe’s forests are being severely degraded, and the forestry industry can’t pretend any longer that nature destruction is only an exotic problem. The new EU law must protect all forests and their ability to support life and that means taking forest degradation seriously, at home and overseas.”
An official from the EU’s current Czech presidency noted that the proposal by EU ministers “foresees a possible revision of the definition two years after its entry into force.”
The legislation will be finalised by MEPs, nation states, and the European Commission in intra-EU negotiations.