Clear definitions: the core of a strong EU regulation to address deforestation and related impacts

When the Accountability Framework initiative (AFi) was founded more than five years ago, one of the first orders of business was to define key terms related to responsible agricultural and forestry supply chains, such as deforestation and deforestation-free. Without consensus on these basic points – which was lacking at that time – concerted action and clear accountability to eliminate deforestation from supply chains remained elusive.  

Now, definitions are in the spotlight again. In November 2021, the European Commission issued its proposal for a groundbreaking new regulation to de-link European Union (EU) consumption of agricultural and forestry commodities from deforestation and related harms. This welcome proposal answers the call from the European public and many other stakeholders to institute government regulation as an essential complement to existing efforts (such as those of the AFi) to address environmental and human rights impacts linked to commodity production and trade. 

As the EU lawmaking process moves forward to refine the Commission’s proposal, the AFi is pleased to publish a new white paper entitled Definitions for success: How the right definitions can help the EU meet its policy aims and improve feasibility to implement the deforestation regulation. This paper draws upon the Accountability Framework to suggest how the EU law’s definitional framework might be strengthened toward two key objectives:  

  1. To better achieve the law’s policy aims, which include preventing global biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions caused by land-use change  
  2. To improve the law’s feasibility for commodity producers, operators, and enforcement agencies (“competent authorities”) to implement, monitor and enforce 

In doing so, the paper builds from Accountability Framework-aligned good practices that are already being applied by companies, industry associations, and civil society groups to address deforestation, conversion, and human rights impacts of supply chains. Effectiveness of the EU law can be increased by building upon these ‘tried and tested’ approaches.  

In concrete terms, the paper’s recommendations could strengthen the law in three main ways. First, they would help ensure that the law fully addresses the conversion of natural forests to plantation forests, which the AFi coalition and many industry actors consider as a form of deforestation. Given that wood products are the third-largest source of EU-driven deforestation, this change is essential to guard against losses in biodiversity, carbon storage, and other benefits that typically accompany the conversion of natural forests to plantation forests. This can be accomplished by introducing a definition of natural forest and defining deforestation to include the conversion from natural forest to plantations. 

Second, the recommendations would extend the scope of the law to include the main fronts of ecosystem destruction associated with the EU market. While deterring the destruction of forests (as defined by the FAO) is a great start, a forest-only scope could omit more than two-thirds of the Brazilian Cerrado and major portions of other key ecosystems that are critical for biodiversity protection and climate stability. For the EU consumer, this could mean continued links between their dinner plate and ecosystem destruction: recent analysis by AFi partner Trase suggests that up to 80% of EU-linked commodity expansion in the Cerrado might not be covered by a forest-only scope. We suggest expanding the law’s coverage to include other wooded lands and natural grasslands (including key wetland ecosystems) to better meet the law’s policy aims. This approach, which is aligned with the Accountability Framework, still leaves ample land for food production, including cropland expansion onto degraded land, managed pasture, and other sites that do not meet these definitions.  

Third, the paper explains how the revised definitions could make the law more feasible to implement, monitor, and enforce. In mosaic landscapes such as the Cerrado, where different vegetation formations (e.g., forest, savannah, and grassland) are tightly interspersed and shift over time, it can be difficult to draw sharp boundaries according to threshold-based definitions. By taking a more holistic approach to natural ecosystems, the proposed definitions can reduce or eliminate this challenge. That creates more regulatory certainty for commodity producers and buyers while making the law easier to monitor and enforce. 

With a foundation of clear definitions that support the EU’s policy aims, the new regulation can provide a huge boost to the global effort to de-link commodity production and trade from ecosystem destruction. 

Download the AFi’s Definitions for success white paper to learn more. 

Jeff Milder is Director of the Accountability Framework initiative.

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