An awful lot has happened since then. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the forests of the world continue to be felled, chipping away, trunk by trunk, at a vital line of defence against the climate crisis.
Britain is reportedly set to intervene with new legislation that will tackle illegal deforestation in UK supply chains to protect global rainforests. However, environmental activists have described the plans as “seriously flawed.”
Large businesses in the UK would be banned from using products grown on land that was stripped of its forests illegally, according to an announcement made on Tuesday.
It would enforce the new rules by demanding those firms release information on where key commodities are sourced from and confirming that they’re in line with the local legislation of the country it imported them from.
But if trees keep falling in the world’s forests, and a local official is there to approve it, will the British government not make a sound?
That’s the question posed by environmental activists critical of the plans — because deforestation is no less deadly for the planet when it's legally commissioned by a government.
Take Brazil, for example. In President Jair Bolsonaro, the country has a leader who has openly courted policies for deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in order to exploit its resources. Despite his own government recording 10,000 fires there in the first 10 days of August, an increase of 17% from 2019, he has insisted that the evidence was a “lie” — because, he said, wet forests couldn’t catch fire.
Overall, there have been 20,000 fires in the Amazon in August so far, while deforestation alerts across the whole of 2020 have increased 33% from last year.
Would legislation banning companies from sourcing products like palm oil or cocoa from illegal deforestation mean it’s totally fine to import from Brazil — where deforestation is rubber-stamped at the highest level of government?
“Defra’s [the UK's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs] proposal to make it ‘illegal for larger businesses to use products unless they comply with local laws to protect natural areas’ is seriously flawed,” said Elena Polisano, a forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “We’ve all seen the way president [Jair] Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest.”
“There is also nothing to address the fact that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line but continue to destroy forests elsewhere, which just shifts the problem into someone else’s backyard,” she added. “We will never solve this problem without tackling demand.”
Under this proposed law UK companies would still be able to buy products if they comply with local laws.— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) August 25, 2020
We’ve all seen how Bolsonaro's govt has opened up the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to industry and the destruction that's followed.
It’s perhaps a personal passion project for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In the same way Theresa May purported to put modern slavery at the top of her agenda — she once said it was "the great human rights issue of our time” — Johnson has repeatedly, as prime minister and foreign secretary, heralded wildlife and bioversity as among his key global priorities.
Although the details of the fines the government would issue to companies who do not publish deforestation information are yet to be released, there is, however, a shared feeling that legislation is required to tackle an issue embedded in Britain’s supply chains.
Deforestation is responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions — while felling forests critically reduces the planet’s capacity to store carbon, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. There’s power in your pocket: if deforestation is a tool to clear a path to production, then consumers hold the cards to stop it at its source.
And that power is best wielded by our elected representatives. It’s a view supported by the general public: a new study from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has found that 67% of UK consumers want the government to do more, while 81% believe there should be greater transparency about where UK products come from.
“The UK has a duty to lead the way in combating the biodiversity and nature crisis,” said Zac Goldsmith, House of Lords peer and international environment minister. “We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world’s most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can’t afford not to act as a country.”
“There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting today on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws.”
Help us stop #IllegalDeforestation.— Defra UK (@DefraGovUK) August 25, 2020
We must take action to protect forests around the world and combat #ClimateChange.
Should it be illegal for UK businesses to use products that come from unlawful deforestation?
Share your views: https://t.co/uWhcWdeOxnpic.twitter.com/ify0n4tATo
But before the legislation is brought forward, it’s being put to a public consultation for six weeks. You can share your views on the issue here.
"This consultation is a welcome first step in the fight to tackle the loss of our planet's irreplaceable natural wonders such as the Amazon and in the pursuit of supply chains free from products that contribute to deforestation," said Ruth Chambers, a senior parliamentary affairs associate at the Greener UK coalition, a group of 13 major environmental organisations with a combined public membership of over 8 million.
"The evidence linking deforestation with climate change, biodiversity loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases is compelling,” she added. “A new law is an important part of the solution and is urgently needed.”