Taking stock to halt the relentless destruction of tropical forests

Halting tropical deforestation has never been more urgent. Threatened by voracious appetites for land for agriculture, tropical forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

From 2010 to 2015 approximately 122.29 million hectares (Mha) of tropical tree cover was lost – that’s 5% of the total area covered by natural forests in 2010. The tropics lost 12 Mha of tree cover in 2018 alone, the fourth-highest annual loss since record keeping began in 2001. This destruction results in decreased livelihoods for those who live near forests, the loss of crucial ecosystem services, and massive greenhouse gas emissions – deforestation and other land use changes are considered the second biggest anthropogenic source of GHG emissions, and a major contributor to climate change.

With the release of a first-of-its-kind report, The Urgency of Action to Tackle Tropical Deforestation, there is now a comprehensive overview of the current status of deforestation. In the report, IDH sums up the status quo, reviews key gaps in current sustainability plans and proposes recommendations to catalyze action on deforestation-free tropical commodities pre- and post-2020.

Forest degradation in tropical countries is largely caused by land use for eight key agricultural commodities – soy, palm oil, beef, tropical timber, cocoa, coffee, wood pulp, and rubber. Deforestation may occur in producing countries, but the agricultural expansion is driven by market demand, and responsibility for this deforestation also lies with consumers. Understanding where deforestation is happening, what commodities accelerate it, and how EU demand drives it are crucial to designing relevant interventions.

New frontiers for deforestation are emerging

Production is concentrated – the top five producers of each of these commodities typically account for the bulk of the total global production. Brazil and Indonesia – the countries with the highest annual deforestation – have seen large swathes of land deforested in the past decades to make way for beef and soy, and palm oil respectively. But the landscape is shifting. In 2002 Brazil and Indonesia made up 71% of tropical primary forest loss, in 2018 they accounted for less than half of primary tropical forest loss.

New deforestation hostpots are emerging throughout the tropics. Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia mirror Brazil, clearing forest tracks for soy and cattle. Malaysia tracks with Indonesia, developing large palm oil plantations. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) is an evolving hotpspot and a unique exception – forests are mainly converted as a consequence of smallholder farming cultivation practices rather than large-scale agriculture. Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana are also all emerging loci for global tropical deforestation.

Hidden carbon emissions

Estimates show that from 2010 to 2014 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions attributable to tropical deforestation totaled 2,600 Mt CO₂e, largely a consequence of agricultural expansion – 39% of these emissions were exported. For about a third of industrialized countries, imported deforestation is estimated to amount to more than 50% of national agricultural emissions. For example, in Belgium imported emissions linked to deforestation nearly exceed national agricultural emissions.

However, national inventories only include emissions occurring within the individual country, and therefore no emissions related to deforestation for the production of imported commodities appear in their GHG inventory. This absence has far reaching consequences as it means that national reduction targets and commitments by consumer countries will exclude these emissions from its scope.

Read more about our hidden carbon emissions here.

European demand drives significant part of deforestation

Five European countries are among the top-10 countries with the greatest deforestation risk in Brazil. European soy imports alone correspond with over 175,000 ha of deforestation and 2.3 MtCO2e of linked greenhouse gas emissions. Europe was responsible for more than 60% of global cocoa imports and about 50% of global coffee imports in 2016. Imports for beef and wood pulp follow – about 30% for both commodities – and imports of all key commodities impact global markets.

The majority of European direct imports of these key commodities are concentrated in just 12 consumer countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). This concentration is a call to action – these countries must respond to the deforestation linked to their imports.

Analyzing certified sustainable imports (a proxy for deforestation-free imports) shows that Europe’s progress has been mixed – 74% of the palm oil imported for food into Europe was RSPO certified, while just 25-32% of all tropical timber imported into the EU was certified. About a third of cocoa imported to the EU is certified. Sustainable imports vary by country – 22% of EU soy imports were certified with Norway leading at 80% and Italy below 3%. These numbers drive or diminish uptake of sustainable certification.

Many commitments made under the Amsterdam Declaration remain unfulfilled, and Forest 500 analysis of corporate commitments shows not a single company is on track to meet 2020 zero deforestation deadlines. Europe must achieve deforestation-free imports.

The path forward is complicated, but the need for action great. Europe must unite to foster the growth of sustainable production globally.

Read the new Urgency of Action report here