New analysis published today by Global Witness indicates that the new Environment Act could fail to tackle much of the UK’s deforestation footprint abroad, despite the UK government’s claims of a ‘world-leading’ law and their role in securing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests to halt and reverse global deforestation by 2030.

The Department For Environment and Rural Affairs is consulting on new rules that will turn the high-level commitments on deforestation in the Environment Act into concrete requirements for companies. However, the consultation questions themselves give a worrying insight into government’s current thinking.

Rather than suggesting the UK act quickly to rein in its contribution to deforestation through its highest-risk commodities – such as cattle, soy, palm oil, cocoa and rubber – the document suggests that accountability for companies could be put off for years. This would be done by either only regulating one or two commodities, or delaying regulation for a broader set of commodities by up to five years. 

Our analysis shows that even under the most optimistic of the ‘phase-in’ scenarios mooted by the government, the rules would not even manage to halve the UK’s deforestation footprint between now and 2030, with the most generous estimate suggesting a reduction of only 44%.  Even the most ambitious application of options proposed would leave UK consumers at risk of unwittingly contributing to a whopping 90,000 hectares rainforest destruction - an area bigger than the entire city of Berlin. A less ambitious application of the options could contribute tens of thousands of hectares beyond this.

None of the options proposed by the government measure up to the urgent challenge of addressing deforestation and the human rights abuses against indigenous peoples, local communities and land and environmental defenders that often underpin it. Assuming a start date of 2023 to leave time for the regulations to pass through parliament, every option currently on the table would leave many products linked to deforestation on UK supermarket shelves in five years’ time.

The proposals contrast with a more rapid and comprehensive approach being taken by the EU as it develops similar legislation. The EU legislative proposal would see regulations apply across a full range of items that pose a risk to forests – such as beef, leather, soya, palm oil, cocoa and coffee– all within a year. The EU legislation would also apply to all deforestation, unlike the UK law which only covers deforestation deemed illegal under local laws. 

Veronica Oakeshott, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness, said:

“MPs from across the political spectrum voted to close the UK market to forest-wrecking goods under the Environment Act and may be as surprised as we are by the disappointing proposals on the table, given the scale and urgency of the global challenge to stop deforestation.

"Under the government's proposed rules, companies producing many everyday commodities like beef, leather and rubber will effectively still be given the green light to keep razing rainforests and selling their deforestation-tainted products to the UK public for several years to come. It will also delay important protections for indigenous peoples and local communities who are facing threats in trying to defend their land and forests. As the climate crisis continues to accelerate and deforestation rates in the Amazon and other crucial ecosystems soar to record highs, there is no time to waste.

"The UK government’s sluggish and limited approach to this crucial legislation undermines their much-vaunted commitments at COP26 to lead global efforts to tackle deforestation. Their current proposals also leave the UK trailing the EU, undermining their claims that it will be a ‘world-leading’ law.

"If the UK government is serious about delivering on its promises and preserving the world’s remaining forests, it must ensure the new Environment Act regulates all of the major forest-risk commodities within a year of the regulations passing.

"Let’s not forget, we are fighting to keep the lungs of the planet alive.”