Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Written by Nicolas Roux, Louise Marie Busck Lumholt, Tiago Reis, Manan Bhan, PhD candidates from COUPLED and HEFT*.

The world’s forestlands and native vegetation are disappearing at an alarming rate. Most of this loss is due to the production of agricultural commodities for export to distant places. The products consumed in European countries originate from all over the world. This is a direct implication of telecoupling and poses a major challenge for forest and biodiversity conservation. The EU acknowledges that production of commodities consumed within Europe can lead to deforestation in areas outside of the EU.

To address this issue, the European Commission has recently shared a roadmap presenting an initiative to ‘’stepping up EU action against Deforestation and Forest Degradation’’. This initiative can be seen as an official acknowledgement of the global impacts of European import of agricultural commodities and consumption of products which, albeit indirectly, greatly contribute to deforestation and forest degradation. We believe that the initiative is fundamental for the European Union to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the UN Strategic Plan for Forests, the UN New York Declaration on Forests, and the Convention on Biological Diversity and the associated Aichi targets. In this initiative lies the opportunity to send a strong message to global value chain actors, that the EU will strive to stop the import of commodities that can be traced to drivers of deforestation, species extinction, and ecosystem breakdown. In our view, the roadmap does not represent a sufficient effort to take advantage of this opportunity.

The roadmap was open for public consultation until January 15th this year and we, a group of PhD candidates from COUPLED** and HEFT**, have responded to the call and shared our feedback-comment. In the comment, we express our views on how to strengthen the initiative to tackle deforestation and forest degradation with more sound and detailed recommendations. Despite previous EU initiatives, deforestation rates have remained alarmingly high. We urge the European Commission to bolster its ambition and radically raise the ambition of the upcoming directive. Following is an excerpt of five of our main points from the feedback-comment to the roadmap:

  1. In the roadmap, the Commission seems to apply a narrow, but at the same time vague conceptualization of forests as tree covered land. We advise the commission to adopt a more stringent definition of ‘forest’ as ‘native forest, its biodiversity, and related ecosystem services’. Moreover, we strongly recommend replacing and expanding all mentioning of “native vegetation” to include other native vegetation types, as ‘marshlands’, ‘bushlands’, ‘savannas’, or ‘grasslands’, given their critical role for climate mitigation, biodiversity and hydrological balance.
  2. We encourage the Commission to avoid vague wording such as “sustainable supply chains” and instead define clear guidelines on how to produce sustainably in respect of human rights, traditional communities, and protection of the environment. The Commission should “require” rather than “promote” zero deforestation supply chains, make corporate and national commitments legally binding, and include direct mentions to banning the entrance of agricultural products associated with deforestation and human rights violations in the European market.
  3. The roadmap represents a one-sided focus on production efficiency while failing to address the need to generally reduce the quantity and trading of forest risk commodities. This is needed, both from the demand-side and through quantity restrictions at each level of the production chain, including restrictions on the amount of forest risk commodities imported to the EU.
  4. There is no reference to the issues of biofuels, animal feed, and meat consumption, even though these areas need strong regulation to actually reduce drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. We call for the Commission to review its objectives on biofuel production, forbid the use of palm and soy oil, and prevent the development of large-scale biofuel refineries (such as Total’s recently allowed biodiesel refinery in La Mede, France).
  5. Finally, we suggest a wider use of citizen science tools, participatory approaches where it makes sense for improved environmental protection, and more generally a strengthening of the science-policy interface to promote knowledge diffusion.

Source: Kastner et al., 2015: EU’s “eHANPP-trade patterns” with world regions.
Maps of the net trade balance of HANPP embodied in the trade of biomass products between the EU and ten other world regions, measured in tonnes dry matter of eHANPP per year. Regions in reddish colors are net exporters of eHANPP to the EU; regions in bluish colors are net importers of eHANPP. eHANPP = human appropriation of net primary production.

The complete feedback note can be viewed here or downloaded directly here. The issue of embodied deforestation and forest degradation in import and international trade of agriculture commodities through multinational supply chains is a major concern for COUPLED and telecoupling research in general. Calls for public consultations on EU policies serve as a great opportunity for researchers to express their opinion and try to steer upcoming directives in a more sustainable way. We hope that the European Commission will continue offering these consultations to strengthen the link between policy makers and sustainability researchers.


Nicolas Roux, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna; fellow in COUPLED**

Louise Marie Busck Lumholt, Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science at ICTA, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain; fellow in COUPLED**

Tiago Reis, Ph.D. candidate in Land-Use Science at UC Louvain, Belgium; fellow in COUPLED**
Manan Bhan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna; HEFT project***

Jan Streek, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna
Barbara Plank, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna
Julia Le noe, Post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna, HEFT project**
Perrine Laroche, Ph.D candidate at Institute of Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije Universitat, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; fellow in COUPLED*.
Bastian Bertsch-Hörmann, M.Sc. student at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna

 * This post reflects only the views of the authors and individual signatories, and neither the Research Executive Agency of the European Commission nor the COUPLED and HEFT project as a whole.

** COUPLED is a European research project, operationalizing telecoupling to address sustainability challenges for land use – Horizon 2020 MSCA research project:

*** HEFT is a European research project, measuring Hidden Emissions of Forest Transitions: GHG effects of socio-metabolic processes reducing pressures on forests, Horizon 2020 – Excellent Science – ERC Starting Grant (StG).

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