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Consumption patterns must change to tackle deforestation

Ministers should develop a global footprint indicator to highlight the UK’s impact on global deforestation amid concerns that current consumption is driving biodiversity loss.

report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) found that consumption patterns in the UK are currently unsustainable, with the nation’s appetite for commodities including soy, cocoa, palm oil, beef and leather putting enormous pressure on forests.

The intensity of UK consumption on the world’s forests – measured as footprint per tonne of product consumed – is higher than that of China, the committee found. It said addressing these patterns is essential to the UK’s contribution to the alleviation of global biodiversity loss and recognising the need to reduce the UK’s overall consumption is a first step.

The MPs called for the government to start the process of setting an environmental footprint target with the aim of reducing the UK’s global environmental impact, including its deforestation footprint.

Globally, deforestation contributes 11% of global carbon emissions, exceeding those from aviation and cement production. Around 90% of deforestation is driven by land-use change to agriculture, often involving the destruction of irreplaceable biodiverse habitats for the production of forest-risk commodities including cattle, soy, palm oil, cocoa, rubber and coffee.

The report highlighted too how deforestation and biodiversity loss have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of local communities, including indigenous peoples, with 25% of the world’s total population and 90% of the world’s population who live in extreme poverty depending on forests for some part of their livelihood.

Under the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use agreed at COP26, the UK has committed to end deforestation and forest degradation by 2030.

The Environment Act 2021 includes a provision to establish a due diligence regime which will prohibit the use of illegally produced commodities. At COP28, the government announced that the first four of these commodities are to be cattle products (other than dairy), cocoa, palm oil and soy. 

The EAC welcomed the development but called on ministers to extend the regime to include all deforestation, including that carried out legally, in line with similar EU regulation, and to bring other forest-risk commodities such as maize, rubber and coffee, into the regime as soon as possible.

The committee also recommend that the government buying standards for public sector food require all acquired forest-risk commodities to be certified as sustainably produced and for sustainability impact assessments to be conducted for all future trade agreements.

“UK consumption is having an unsustainable impact on the planet at the current rate,” said EAC chair Philip Dunne. “UK markets must not be flooded with products that threaten the world’s forests, the people whose livelihoods rely on them and the precious ecosystems that call them home. Yet despite the recent commitment before and at COP28 to invest more in reforestation measures and The Amazon Fund to help halt the speed of global deforestation, the UK needs to take tangible steps to turn the dial at home.”

Dunne expressed concern that currently “there is little sense of urgency about getting a rapid grip on the problem of deforestation, which needs to match the rhetoric”.