UK ‘risks sending mixed signals’ with approach to global deforestation rules

It comes after the Government rejected some MP recommendations on how to prevent firms from trading products linked to forest loss.

The Environmental Audit Committee said ministers risk sending ‘mixed messages’ with its approach to deforestation rules
The Environmental Audit Committee said ministers risk sending ‘mixed messages’ with its approach to deforestation rules (Ben Birchall/PA)

The Government risks sending “mixed signals” with its current approach to developing new rules aimed at preventing global forest loss, MPs have warned.

Government plans will see businesses prohibited from using or selling goods containing palm oil, cocoa, beef, leather and soy linked to illegal deforestation under the 2021 Environment Act.

But ministers are yet to publish the legislation or set a date for the rules to come into force with the Environment Department (Defra) saying it “will be laid when parliamentary time allows”.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said the Government rejected some of its recommendations to stop firms from trading products linked to forest loss.

This included advice to halt the sale of these products, regardless of whether the deforestation was legal in the producer country or not.

The MPs said this “zero-deforestation” approach would encourage consistency in trading such commodities across UK and European markets, increasing protections for areas at risk of deforestation.

But in its response to the EAC, the Government said it believed “the only way to achieve zero global deforestation in supply chains is to work in partnership with producer countries – and that working in partnership requires us to uphold and respect national laws.”

Philip Dunne, EAC chairman, said: “Clearing forests to produce goods is deeply damaging whenever it takes place; it being permitted under local laws does not change that fact.

“UK businesses should not be trading in products linked to deforestation, as defined by the UN, if we want to provide genuine international leadership.

The EAC said
The EAC said (Alamy Stock Photo)

“Failing to prohibit such trade risks giving mixed signals.”

Mr Dunne also criticised the Government for a “lack of urgency” in laying out the necessary legislation, adding: “Businesses cannot afford any more uncertainty.”

Elsewhere in its response, the Government said it is not considering plans to extend the scope of its own sustainability purchasing rules, covering products like palm oil and timber, to cover other large public sector bodies, such as the NHS, Armed Forces and Prison Service.

But Mr Dunne warned: “The public sector at home needs certainty too.”

He urged the Government to at least consider strengthening its guidance on more sustainable procurement choices to these public bodies.

The group of MPs did welcome the Government’s decision to consider how the new legislation can support indigenous peoples and their crucial role in preserving forests.

The Government also agreed that ministers should ensure funding for “capacity building” among indigenous groups reaches grassroots organisations “directly and verifiably” – meaning the groups are better able to strengthen their skills, abilities, and resources to adapt and thrive.

This extends to building capacity in producer countries, with the Government saying it “continues to work with both businesses and smallholder farmers to improve sustainable practices and encourage forest-friendly business”.

Mr Dunne said: “I welcome the evidence in this response of the action the Government is taking to build capacity and sustainability in producer countries.”

Naomi Hirst, forests campaign lead at Global Witness campaign group, said: “MPs across the political spectrum have proposed sensible measures to stop UK consumers from contributing to deforestation via their pensions and weekly shop.

“Ministers have no excuse for rejecting this accelerated blueprint to end the UK’s contribution to the destruction of climate-critical forests.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The UK has already introduced legislation through the Environment Act to help rid the UK’s supply chains of products contributing to the destruction of these vital habitats.

“We are also investing in significant international programmes to restore forests, which have preserved over 410,000 hectares to date, alongside supporting new green finance streams.”