Momentum is growing for demand-side regulations on deforestation – here’s why regulation is an imperative

By Jeff Conant 21 March, 2020 :: Published on the Platform of the New York Declaration on Forests

The 2019 assessment of progress five years after the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) was created is discouraging to say the least. Global tree cover loss has increased by 43 percent since the declaration was made, and months into 2020, the 2020 deadline for halving deforestation (not to mention the Consumer Goods Forum deadline of eliminating it altogether) appears further off than ever. In the words of the assessment, “the short-term profits of forest conversion still trump the long-term benefits of forest conservation and restoration.”

Of the private sector efforts that have been made, many lack ambition, and all lack a common framework or incentive sufficient to catalyze a systemic shift in behavior. This broad failure provides an object lesson in what many in civil society have argued for years: voluntary approaches, no matter how grand the rhetoric, are insufficient to the task. Indeed, decades after the Reagan/Thatcher years instituted a full-scale assault on the role of government in regulating the private sector, it has become extremely unpopular to make the case that scalability of impact and systemic shifts in practice are not the province of corporate social responsibility, but of regulation.

But regulation is precisely what is needed, and, nominally at least, both the Tropical Forest Alliance and the Consumer Goods Forum have expressed support for regulatory approaches. TFA Director Justin Adams wrote in The Financial Times last year that “averting disaster requires transformational, rather than incremental, action,” noting that “the idea that we would ever eliminate deforestation with voluntary corporate action alone was naive in the extreme.”

Goal 2 of the NY Declaration asks that signatories “Support the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper, and beef products by no later than 2020,” with the guidance note that “Without transparency, there can’t be accountability.” Similarly, Goal 10 is to “Strengthen forest governance, transparency, and the rule of law,” and the guidance for that goal is clear: “Demand-side measures play an important role in achieving sustainable supply chains.”

Demand-side regulations governing the timber sector, such as the European Union Timber Regulation and the U.S. Lacey Act, are notable successes in driving change – but the other commodity sectors responsible for deforestation have seen no such effort – until now. In Europe, both Norway and France have new policies that restrict “imported deforestation,” and the EU is considering something similar, while also contemplating measures to re-direct finance to more sustainable land-use practices.

Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. regulatory landscape is beginning to show promising signs as well.

In 2019, and again in 2020, California legislators introduced the California Deforestation Free Procurement Act to address the impact of the world’s sixth largest economy on the world’s rainforests. The bill would require all state contracts for products containing forest-risk commodities – palm oil, soy, rubber, paper, beef and timber – to affirm that they are deforestation free, or be barred from state procurement contracts.

The 2019 bill gained strong bipartisan support in the CA legislature, and was endorsed by virtually the entirety of civil society from campaign groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, to the big greens represented by Environmental Defense and the Nature Conservancy, to the Ceres Investor Network. While the bill did not become law in 2019, it was reintroduced in 2020, and inspired a similar bill to be introduced into the 2020 session in New York.

If passed, the California and New York State bills will require state contracts that include products derived wholly or in part from forest-risk commodities to certify that such products have not contributed to tropical deforestation, destruction of peatlands, or exploitation of workers and local and indigenous communities and were produced in compliance with producer country laws. The mechanism to do so is a requirement that all companies dealing in forest-risk commodities have in place robust No Deforestation No Peat, No Exploitation policies and are able to demonstrate due care to the point of origin. The emphasis on both bills is on transparency and traceability.

Along with policies in the EU and EU member states, state procurement policies in the U.S. will help to create a level playing field for industry by setting the expectation that all companies maintain the same high standards. Such laws are precisely what is needed to catalyze the systematic shift in behavior called for by the New York Declaration.

Leading signatories of the NYDF, and companies within the TFA and the CGF, have already established key elements of supply chain due diligence – but every analysis shows that without a systemic incentive, these commitments will continue to go unmet. Destructive agricultural practices and industry’s drive for profit without regulation has contributed to the climate emergency we’re facing. With 2020 upon us, and all evidence showing that the crisis is already well beyond a tipping point, now is the time for the private sector to recognize the imperative of demand side regulations – hopefully before the world’s rainforests start burning again.

To learn more about the CA and NY bills:

Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

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