UK’s growing demand for overseas commodities is leading to deforestation

Friday 10 July 2020

New research shows that the UK’s demand for just seven products, including palm oil, timber, soy, and cocoa, is driving severe deforestation overseas, leading two major charities to call for UK government to take bold action.  

Booming demand 

These findings, from  ‘Riskier Business: The UK’s Overseas Land Footprint, co-produced by WWF and RSPB, also reveals a 15% growth in the UK’s land footprint overseas compared to 2011–2015. It now takes an area equivalent to 88% of the UK’s total land area to fill demand for the seven commodities which also include pulp and paper, beef and leather, and rubber – potentially threatening over 2,800 globally threatened species. 

Furthermore, the conversion of natural ecosystems and changes in land cover associated with the production of cocoa, palm oil, rubber and soy alone resulted in about 28 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year between 2011 and 2018. This is equal to 7–8% of the UK’s entire overseas carbon footprint in 2016.  

The UK’s demand for cocoa now accounts for 9% of the global land footprint for the commodity, requiring 20% more land since the previous assessment. Half of those imports come from Ivory Coast, potentially threatening the country’s 281 species that are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. 25 of these are bird species including the Gola malimbe and the Rufous fishing owl. Other species at risk include the iconic leopard, Pel’s flying squirrel, the Pygmy hippopotamus, two species of crocodile and two species of pangolin. 

The report also provides detailed case studies of palm oil-fuelled deforestation in Indonesia, which has lost an area the size of Wales in less than a decade, and soy-driven deforestation in Brazil, which has lost an area roughly the size of the Midlands in just two years. 

This report is crucial in recognising and addressing how actions in the UK can increase the risk of emerging zoonotic diseases and highlights the unintended repercussions of putting unsustainable pressures on our natural world. 

Chance for reform 

This call comes in advance of landmark legislation on environment and agriculture progresses in the UK, set to soon return to parliament. It demands a legally binding global footprint target be included in this Environment Bill, as well as a world-leading ‘mandatory due diligence’ obligation which would require UK businesses to prove their supply chains are not wrecking the planet. Both charities also stress the importance of forging responsible new trade deals – ones that do not undermine the UK’s commitments to climate, nature and people. Together, these steps would mean that entire sectors could play a part in removing deforestation from UK supply chains. 

The charities also recognise the role of companies, financial institutions, and consumers. They call on companies to be set ambitious, transparent goals to remove deforestation from their supply chains, and for financial institutions to make sure that no lending or investments are associated with illegal environmental or social practices, or the destruction of nature. Individual people, the charities say, also have a critical role – write to your politicians, and demand transparency and action from your shops. 

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive at the RSPB, said: 

“It is easy to feel distant from the destruction of forests thousands of miles away. But the global pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the fact that when we destroy nature, we gamble with human health. 

If we are serious about rebuilding a brighter future, we need new laws to ensure that companies can prove their supply chains are not putting us all at risk. 

The greatest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War has physically cut us off from each other. For many, nature has become a link to the outside world and a source of solace. The links between thriving nature habitats and our mental wellbeing have never been more obvious. We cannot afford to underestimate the value of nature. Neither can we turn a blind eye to the power of our choices. As a society, an economy and as individuals, we have to change the world for the better.” 

Martin Harper, Director of Global Conservation at RSPB, said: 

“In the UK, communities are fiercely protective of their local beauty spots and nature habitats – planning applications to cut down woodlands time after time provoke a powerful backlash from residents. 

“We wouldn’t want to tear up the greenbelt for commercial use here, but importing products linked to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest simply outsources the destruction of nature. If the UK Government wants to be taken seriously as a global environmental leader as host of the COP26 climate summit next year, it needs to urgently take action and introduce new laws to ensure that agricultural supply chains are not wrecking the planet. 

“It is time for the government to stop passing the buck to consumers.” 

Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF, said:  

“The hidden cost of the food we eat and the things we buy is all too often the destruction of nature overseas, threatening our climate and human health. Every hectare cleared brings us in closer contact with wild animals and risks a new global pandemic. 

We can only truly improve UK environmental standards if we stop importing food that causes deforestation elsewhere. As we begin the process of recovery from the pandemic, we urgently need a legal duty on companies to cut these activities out of their supply chains, and we can’t sign up to trade deals that have habitat destruction baked in. If we don’t take these measures, we are just starting the timer on the next global health crisis.” 

Read the summary report

Tagged with: Country: International Topic: Climate change Topic: Conservation