From the time we’re in school, we are taught that forests absorb and store carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases (GHG) responsible for climate change, and that they produce and release oxygen. Yet despite the essential role of forests – to sustain life on earth – global deforestation continues at an alarming rate. An area of forest of 14.5 million hectares per year was lost between 1990 and 2005. This is the equivalent of losing one football-sized pitch every two seconds. Substantial areas of forests have also been degraded or fragmented, threatening their survival.

Deforestation in Central Kalimantan © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Rainforest juxtaposes with rows of cut trees from the recent clearance of forest inside the PT Wana Catur Jaya Utama palm oil concession in Mantangai, Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan.

Every day, large volumes of agricultural products connected to deforestation are sold on the EU market as food products, animal feed and cosmetics. European banks and financial institutions often fund foreign projects contributing to forest loss, like the conversion of forest for palm oil or pulpwood plantations. Shiploads of illegal timber also continue to enter the European market routinely, as exposed by a recent report which reveals how European timber traders are contributing to the destruction of the Amazon.

European leaders have repeatedly endorsed the objective of ending deforestation and reducing forest degradation by 2020. Due to their vital role in fighting climate change, protecting forests is also part of discussions at the ongoing UN Climate Conference in Paris.

Despite Europe’s good intentions, the EU’s forest footprint remains significant and the EU is still doing too little to reverse global forest destruction.

Since 2003, EU efforts have focused on the implementation of the EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) action plan to tackle illegal logging and related trade. Ten years later, much remains to be done, as the European Court of Auditors recently pointed out.

Today, our main concerns are that:

The measures adopted by the EU action plan to address illegal logging remain relevant today and should be fully applied without delay if the EU wants to remain a credible actor in tackling global deforestation and forest degradation. The EU also needs to use its influence to persuade other key countries – China in particular – to act.

Yet, existing FLEGT measures alone are not enough to reduce Europe’s forest footprint and stop global deforestation.

The environmental impact of the forestry sector remains significant, especially in terms of forest degradation, which is a precursor of deforestation. Today, 80% of global deforestation is caused by agriculture. The EU contributes to the problem by importing products like palm oil, beef and leather, soy and cocoa, but also timber from deforested areas.

The Commission identified this wider commodity problem in 2008. However, it took until 2013 – and the adoption of the 7th EU Environment action programme – for the EU to recognise the need for an action plan against deforestation and forest degradation. Last month, European environment commissioner Karmenu Vella announced that the Commission was finally considering new policies against deforestation.

The EU must take immediate action if it wants to lead the way towards zero deforestation. It needs to guarantee that all supply chains in the EU market are free from deforestation, and cut off the money that finances forest destruction. The EU should also support developing countries with increased funding to improve governance, protect forests and peatlands, uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and further expand ecological farming practices.

An increasing number of retailers, processers, producers and banks have embarked on the path towards zero deforestation. As a major trading bloc, the EU must rise to the challenge and adopt measures to speed up the transformation of the global market by 2020. European leaders must act to silence the chainsaws and halt the bulldozers.

Sébastien Risso is the Forests Policy Director at Greenpeace EU.