By Laura Bochniak, 89 Poland
What has a shorter life cycle than a plastic package? Toilet paper. While there is a chance that you may reuse some plastic packages in limited circumstances, toilet paper is not that fortunate. Thus, a tree is basically being planted on the other side of the world—only to be cut down after 20-50 years, travel miles to a toilet paper manufacturing site, shipped to a store, purchased by the end consumer and used for less than 5 seconds.
To make this picture even more devastating, toilet paper production accounts for almost 10% of deforestation worldwide, and it is used only by some 30% of the world population. Every day, an equivalent of nearly 27,000 trees is flushed. And the trees that are being replanted are usually monocultures, which displace diverse indigenous plant and animal life. Is it really worth it?
You may now be wondering what the message is. Of course, I am not telling you to stop using toilet paper (although you may want to reduce the amount you use, buy recycled or bamboo toilet paper, or even consider reusable toilet paper). While I will now move on to discuss the broader issue of deforestation, you may check out some alternatives to toilet paper here if you are interested.
Annually, the Earth loses around 5 million hectares of forest, 95% of which occurs in the tropics. The three most significant drivers of deforestation are beef (cattle ranging) — accounting for 41% of tropical forests loss, palm oil and soy production — accounting for 18%, and forestry products such as the aforementioned toilet paper — accounting for 13%. That adds up to 72%!
At the current rate of deforestation, global forests will disappear within 100 years. Forest destruction is, however, not evenly spread across geographies. While currently in the EU, only 60-70% of the annual increment is being cut – therefore, the growing stock of wood is rising – South America lost 20.6 million hectares of forest in the last ten years and Africa – 30.9 million hectares – making it the continent most affected by deforestation. The massive discrepancy between Europe, South America and Africa has multiple causes; however, forest management plans are vital in explaining the difference. According to Pieter van Lierop, FAO Forestry Officer, “long term sustainable management plans are crucial to reduce deforestation, increase forest protection and ecosystems services that forest ecosystems provide. Management plans may also guide forest restoration practices and increase forest cover taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations“. Consequently, good forest management plans are essential to sustain our global forests.
How does the EU help to fight deforestation and forest degradation?
The European Commission acknowledges the cruciality of forests in our ecosystem and thus tries to regulate the EU trade of timber and its trade in third-world countries. FLEGT Action Plan of the European Commission is the core of the current EU Forest Strategy. It consists of 7 measures preventing the import of illegal timber into the EU, aiming to enhance the supply of legal timber and increase the demand for timber from responsibly managed forests. The plan lays down a basis for two principal policy instruments: the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) and the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Regulation.
The EUTR attempts to regulate the trade inside and outside the EU and disincentivise companies from providing and purchasing timber harvested in violation of the country of origin’s laws. Although there are some criticisms about its effectiveness and allegations of incomplete implementation, the EUTR remains the most powerful tool to date, as it managed to coordinate due diligence principles for tracking timber origin across the countries. Along with the FLEGT Regulation, which introduces the FLEGT licenses, it is a part of a comprehensive approach to the deforestation problem. The Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), which also form a part of the FLEGT Action Plan, are binding on the signatories, help to codify different pieces of national legislation of timber-producing countries and promote sustainable management of forests by providing a system of checks and balances. This process helps produce FLEGT licensed timber that can be easily and safely placed on the EU market.
On top of that, the recent EU Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy forming a part of the EU Green Deal will also have their role in preventing illegal deforestation. The EU Biodiversity strategy aims to reinforce the principles of the Habitats and the Birds Directives that protect European forests in their role of natural habitats, as they are given the protective status of Natura 2000. What’s more, the strategy brings new protection and restoration measures by widening a network of protected areas to at least 30% of the EU land and sea, including all remaining primary and old-grown forests.
The Farm to Fork Strategy focuses on agriculture and aims to make its impact at least neutral for the environment. A positive development concerning forests can be seen in the anticipated rewards system for foresters engaged in carbon sequestration as a part of the common agricultural policy. Also, the strategy itself will increase the efficiency and sustainability of food production, which will increase the quality of land management and decrease the need for timber logging.
What else can be done?
Further forest-specific developments are anticipated later this year with the European Commission’s new proposal on the EU Forest Strategy. There is a hope that this strategy will supplement the already existing legislative framework and address the current gaps of the EUTR. A welcomed development would be the unification of a type of sanctions among the Member States, i.e., introducing obligatory criminal sanctions, since the current enforcement system has a minimal deterrence effect. Moreover, the competent authorities should be equipped with additional powers and resources to carry out their responsibilities more efficiently. A ‘Zero-tolerance to no compliance’ approach – to date non-existent – would also increase the effectiveness of the EUTR and the FLEGT.
Another potential, to date, not much-explored development would be regulating the production of commodities that are the main driver for deforestation, such as soy, palm oil and cattle products. For example, 80% of deforestation in Brazil is driven by cuttle ranging. Appropriate legislation regulating the conditions for land conversion for the cultivation of soy and palms etc. shall be integrated into the EU Forest Strategy to ensure that the problem is tackled from multiple perspectives. Such a regulation could be either pursued on a supply chain level or organised similarly to the EUTR by putting an obligation on the timber middleman for the information tracing and risk assessment.
In the case of commodities-driven deforestation, the best-suited actors to bear the responsibility for due diligence would be the companies that sell timber-based end products to the consumers. The revision of the Non-Financial Reporting Directive could be a chance to put this idea into practice. Currently, the Directive requires public-interest companies with more than 500 employees to report their social, governance and environmental information (ESG). The latter is understood two folds: what influence the company has on the environment and its impact on the company’s financial stability. The NFRD does not specify which environmental matters need to be reported. Still, a few NGOs lobby to include climate change mitigation and adaptation, water security, land use, and commodity-driven deforestation in the environmental criteria. Embedding the deforestation aspects into the NFRD would ensure that the real economy has integrated forests risk, management and restoration into their business and investment practices, and therefore the private sector no longer drives deforestation globally.
Another development could be incentivising timber-producing countries to favour legal harvesting by providing tax alleviation or other financial rewards for supporting the legal market. Although a short-term solution, it may establish a healthy legal environment where timber prices are not driven down by the black market of illegally harvested timber. That would contribute to a graduate rise in prices to allow for covering operational costs and creating profit for the foresters acting in compliance with the regulations.
Last but not least, we as consumers can also reduce our contribution to deforestation. We can decrease the amount of meat (especially beef) and soy that we consume and try to choose paper and wood products coming from certified sources such as FSC or PEFC.