Have you ever wondered what the impact of one chocolate bar is? Or a tank-full of petrol? Or that hamburger you had for lunch? No, I don’t mean in calories; I am talking about impacts of a planet-wide nature. What we eat, the fuel we use and the products we consume, all have big effects on the world’s forests.

Global deforestation remains one of the most serious environmental challenges facing developing countries and industrialised regions. Forests are fundamental to life on earth, as harbours for animal and plant life, for their ability to lock in carbon dioxideand for the livelihoods they provide hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Yet deforestation continues at a shocking pace.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the world is losing forests at the rate of a football pitch every two seconds. Tropical forests are being felled to provide timber and make space for new agricultural land. Global demand for commodities such as meat, timber, soy and palm oil continues to rise, and the pressure on forests has never been greater.

But who is driving deforestation? The European Commission has today released an independent report, The Impact of EU Consumption on Deforestation, which for the first time estimates the impact of European consumption of products such as meat, biofuels and manufactured goods (such as furniture) on deforestation across the globe. Although their estimates are conservative because of some big data-gaps, the study is the first to account for the European Union’s role in the dreadful deforestation offensive. It identifies which industrial sectors are the biggest contributors and shows how much each is responsible for.

The report, The impact of EU consumption on deforestation, has three main findings. Firstly, the EU was the biggest driver of global deforestation of all industrialised regions and China for the period 1990-2008. Major industrialised economies, along with China, were responsible for about one third of all deforestation that occurred globally during that period. Of these, the EU was the biggest contributor, with at least ten per cent of global deforestation linked to its consumption [2]. This is at least four times as much as China and three times as much as North America. Europe’s ever-growing demand for meat, dairy products, biomass and biofuels for energy, and other products that require large areas of land, has put increasing pressure on forest ecosystems around the world, the report found. Between 1990 and 2008, most of the worst affected forests were in Latin America, South-East Asia, Africa and, including the Amazon in Brazil, the Harapan forest in Indonesia and the Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The report’s second main finding is that the wasteful and unsustainable production and consumption of food, animal feed and energy crops in Europe have resulted in the destruction of an area of forest of at least 9 million hectares, which is equivalent to the size of Ireland, during the same period.

Although industrialised regions bear a significant responsibility for causing global deforestation, the largest share of forest destruction was linked to consumption of products within the most heavily forested countries themselves. The report identifies two main drivers of this ‘domestic’ deforestation - the consumption of livestock and animal feed, and of vegetable oil for food and energy products.

Much of the problem can be laid at the door of major corporations and industries. Greenpeace has already taken action against the likes of Nestle, Unilever, Asia Pulp & Paper and meat giant JBS to rid their supply chains of deforestation. But it is time that governments act to cement such action and speed up the process to end deforestation.

European pledges but no action so far

EU politicians cannot claim environmental or climate leadership while allowing forest destruction on this massive scale. European action has stalled since the EU’s illegal logging action plan was launched in 2003. In 2008, environment ministers pledged to pursue the goal of halting global forest loss by 2030 and halving tropical deforestation by 2020. But these commitments have not been followed through with specific policy proposals.

But the good news is that things may be about to change. Following a political agreement last week on a long-term environmental action plan, the EU is to consider comprehensive plans to tackle deforestation and forest degradation on a global scale. 

If the EU is to be successful in stopping forest destruction, it needs to put in place policies that will eliminate commodities and products linked to deforestation from the EU market. In addition, it needs to support developing countries to tackle deforestation in their own territories.  In concrete terms this means ensuring that consumer goods placed on the European market are deforestation-free by 2020; no matter whether it's a steak, a pair of leather shoes or a chocolate bar. Moreover, the revenues from taxation of carbon intensive industries and financial transactions could, for instance, be used to support the actions of developing countries in fighting deforestation, whilst harmful subsidies which benefit those industries that drive forest destruction could be re-directed to forest protection. In fact, this would avoid increasing the burden on government budgets. Equally important is an immediate halt to the consumption of biofuels that compete with food production for land.

Political leaders must ensure that forests are protected and wisely managed to allow future generations to have the same or better life opportunities than we enjoy today. Exporting Europe’s environmental destruction is not an acceptable or viable option.

Sebastien Risso, Greenpeace EU forests policy director