Comment: Tree-planting's All Well And Good – But It's High Time We Addressed UK's Deforestation Guilt

Opinion
Comment: Tree-planting's All Well And Good – But It's High Time We Addressed UK's Deforestation Guilt
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By Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness

In his plans to introduce a Green Industrial Revolution, Boris Johnson has raised the idea of mass tree-planting programmes as a way of mitigating some of the impacts of climate change. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister repeated his commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees every year in his much-vaunted 10-point climate plan.

This is all well and good, but its impact on addressing global warming will be negligible unless the much bigger issue of the UK’s imported deforestation of products from climate-critical rainforests like the Amazon is addressed. 

Both Labour and the Conservatives have championed the idea of a Green Recovery as a route out of the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. But yet neither have really confronted the biggest challenges to making this happen or the fact that communities in the Global South are already suffering the effects of climate change. It’s time they raised their game. It’s vital that our political leaders put the protection of the world’s forests and the human rights of forest communities at the centre of its environmental agenda.

Global deforestation is happening at alarming rates, with over 300 million hectares of tree cover destroyed between 2001 and 2015, making Boris Johnson’s recent pledge far less impressive. If deforestation were a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide emissions, after China and the US.  

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the importance of preserving the biodiversity of tropical rainforests in order to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.


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The destruction of rainforests frequently goes hand in hand with human rights abuses against those who rely on, and often seek to protect, forests. Marginalised and oppressed peoples, such as forest and indigenous communities are threatened, attacked and lose their livelihoods as unscrupulous operators wipe out swathes of rainforest.  

A significant driver of deforestation is the production of agricultural commodities such as beef, palm oil, rubber and soy that often end up in UK supermarkets, which account for around a third of all deforestation-related emissions.

And the UK’s finance sector is bankrolling this destruction. Global Witness’s Money to Burn report found the UK to be the single-largest provider of international credit and investment behind six agribusiness companies involved in, or closely linked to, deforestation in climate-critical forests, providing £5 billion in financing between 2013-2019. This includes major banks like HSBC, Barclays and Standard Chartered. A number of major UK banks have also funnelled around USD$9.5 billion into forest-risk commodity companies between 2013 and 2020, according to the recently launched Forests & Finance dataset.

Global Witness welcomes the UK government’s recent publication of legislation in the form of an amendment to the Environment Bill to ban companies over a certain size from using products associated with illegal deforestation and require companies to undertake checks to identify and mitigate illegal deforestation risks. However, the devil is in the detail and the proposed legislation does not go nearly far enough. The UK government must address the following serious gaps in the legislation if it is to be a true environmental leader.


Read more on DeSmog UK – Investigation: The Problem with Big Oil’s ‘Forest Fever’


The UK government’s proposed law is in danger of continuing some of the most damaging deforestation, just because it is deemed “legal” in domestic laws. The UK itself needs a single, clear definition of deforestation and what activities its businesses can and cannot engage in. The proposed legislation only covers deforestation defined as illegal by others, which enables UK businesses to be complicit in forest destruction if allowed under local rules. Only half of recent tropical deforestation would be covered under this approach, therefore missing out half of the problem. For the law to be effective, the government must broaden the scope of the proposal so that it applies to all deforestation.  

The proposed law also turns a blind eye to the money pipeline funding forest destruction by excluding the finance sector in the types of businesses it covers. Without binding rules for finance, there is no incentive for UK-based financial institutions to stop bankrolling global deforestation.         

More needs to be done to protect the rights of indigenous people and forest communities, who are on the frontline of protecting climate-critical forests. These communities must have the right to prevent, or allow, companies to operate in their local area and this must be included in the proposed UK law.

If the UK government is serious about being a global leader on climate change, it must ensure it does more to end the UK’s complicity in global deforestation. Otherwise, Boris Johnson’s plans risk amounting to nothing more than greenwashing.

Main image credit: Walter Baxter/Wikimedia/CC BYSA 2.0

Comment: Tree-planting's All Well And Good – But It's High Time We Addressed UK's Deforestation Guilt

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