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Protecting Forests from Top-Down EU Policy Planning by Pieter Cleppe

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Protecting Forests from Top-Down EU Policy Planning

The EU is not known for minding its own business. One particular obsession for Brussels regulators has been forests, mostly as a result of the pressure from ‘green’ NGOs. 

Obviously, forests are incredibly valuable and something of which we ought to have more, but fundamentally they are not something that causes cross-border challenges, unless of course it comes to the wood and timber trade. 

The EU has not restrained itself to scrapping barriers to trade on this matter. As Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers points out in a parliamentary question to the European Commission, 

despite a lack of provisions in the EU treaties for a common forest policy, the EU has gradually expanded its powers in this policy area since a 1999 Court of Justice of the European Union ruling recognised EU competence on environmental action in forests.

He quotes EU ‘Green Deal’ Commissioner Timmermans saying that “the EU has a range of competences that may relate to forests such as climate, environment, rural development” and that “within these areas of shared EU competences, forests and forestry certainly do not fall exclusively within the competency of Member States’(3)(4).” The latter would mean that the Commission has justification to act, and issue legislation—basically telling EU member states how to deal with their forests.  

A Dutchman like Frans Timmermans may not be fully aware of the importance of forests within the Scandinavian economies. The fact that the claims by Timmermans happens to be on very shaky legal ground, rightly highlighted by Weimers, is bound to provoke a major political clash at some point. 

Weimers is not the only one raising this, however. Dr. Björn Hägglund, a Swedish academic and former Director General of the Swedish Forest Agency, has warned that “the EU Commission got its forest strategy wrong,” noting it “will have negative implications for Nordic forestry,” because, amongst others “the Commission seems to advocate continuity forestry, without regeneration felling (which is when the greater part of a forest is felled where most of the trees are fully grown) and by doing so ignoring the complex biology of the Nordic forests.” He explains that “This model was applied on a large scale in Sweden from around 1920 to 1950. … But the result was catastrophic. The remaining trees were unable to form new productive forest areas, and instead enormous areas arose that were sparsely grown with mainly spruce and birch.” 

A mere look at the complexity of this should indeed already result inthe conclusion that for eurocrats in Brussels, who lack specific local knowledge, to decide upon forest management policies. Thankfully, last fall, diplomats from EU member states raised concerns about the scope of the new forest strategy and its implications for domestic competencies. Knowing the European Commission, however, one can be however sure it will launch another attempt to gain control over this. 

Countering deforestation in trade deals

Trying to micromanage forest policies of EU member states is not the only thing the EU is engaged in. The French EU Presidency is currently pushing to “prevent products resulting from deforestation being placed on the European market” when negotiating new trade deals.  

France therefore strongly backs the European Commission’s deforestation proposal. However, it is one thing to support banning imports with a high environmental footprint; another thing is how to go about this. This particular proposal by the Commission is anything but targeted. It lumps all imports together, targeting what it calls “the main products linked to deforestation like soy, beef, palm oil, timber, cocoa and coffee.” 

Regional differences are thereby not properly taken into account, which it obviously should be, because deforestation is not as problematic in Asia as compared to Africa and South America—at least that is what the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has stated, with one of its reports outlining that “annually South America had a net forest loss of 2.6 million ha in 2010–2020. The rate of net forest loss has declined substantially in South America, to about half the rate in 2010–2020 compared with 2000–2010,” while “Asia had the highest net gain of forest area in 2010–2020.”    

That Asian economies with a thriving palm oil industry, like Indonesia and Malaysia, would be hit hard is especially unfair, as there are “bright spots of hope for forests in Indonesia and Malaysia”, according to the World Resources Institute, which states:

Indonesia’s rate of primary forest loss decreased for the fourth year in a row in 2020, one of only a few countries to do so. Indonesia also dropped out of the top three countries for primary forest loss for the first time since our record-keeping began.… Primary forest loss also declined in Malaysia for the fourth year in a row.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, the situation in Brazil continues to worsen. At the root of the problem is poor property rights protection, which French university scholars have summed up as follows: “Landowners clear the forest preventively in order to assert the productive use of land and to reduce the expropriation risk.”

Furthermore, the EU’s brash approach also punishes industry efforts to improve production processes. An NGO, Global Canopy, has singled out palm oil supply chains as doing a much better job than others when it comes to this: 72% of companies in that sector have made a deforestation commitment, which is much higher than competitors in the “pulp and paper (49%), soy (40%), beef (30%) and leather (28%)” sectors. In the future, industries may wonder why they bother to improve their ways, when imports into the EU are then blocked in a non-targeted manner. 

The EU could start by cleaning up its own house 

Perhaps a better strategy for the EU could be to clean up its own house first. The enormous amounts the EU spends on agriculture, a few hundred billion over seven years, heavily subsidize intensive agriculture, with 80% of EU cash going to 20% of the recipients.

The Dutch NGO Fern, which is dedicated to fighting deforestation, has accused the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of “[encouraging] the expansion of soybean cultivation, as European farmers rely on imported soy from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to use as animal feed.” 

This is yet more evidence of how EU spending cuts can also help the environment. Europe’s forests would be thankful for that.

Pieter Cleppe is the editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, an online magazine covering EU politics. He is on Twitter @pietercleppe.

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