Businesses restate calls to strengthen Environment Bill

A second letter has today (15 September) been signed by McDonald’s, Nando’s and some of the UK’s leading supermarkets to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), urging it to strengthen deforestation legislation within the new Environment Bill.

The current proposal for the Environment Bill pledges to tackle only illegal deforestation, but the signatories argue that this legislation is ‘not sufficient’ to protect forests.

The letter states: “Restricting action to illegal deforestation only would not achieve halting the loss of these natural ecosystems, especially when producing country governments have discretion to decide what is legal or have inadequate enforcement mechanisms, and local land title and clearance records can be unreliable or absent.”

Instead, the signatories argue that the Environment Bill should aim to end all forms of deforestation, as several of the proposed amendments suggest.

Illegal logging can be defined as ‘when timber is harvested, transported, processed, bought or sold in violation of national or subnational laws’ – meaning it can be interpreted in a variety of ways across the globe – and many nations where deforestation occurs the most have very weak legislation in this area.

In Brazil, for instance, loggers must hold a specific license, but in fact 60 to 80 per cent of deforestation in the country is estimated to be illegal logging.

The letter also cites the upcoming COP26 summit as an incentive to crack down on deforestation in all its forms, because as president of COP26, the UK should develop a ‘world leading regime’ on tackling climate change.

In October 2020, the same corporations wrote to Defra proposing that businesses should have to disclose if they have a significant ‘forest footprint’, particularly regarding ‘high forest risk’ materials such as soy, palm oil, beef, cocoa, or rubber. This would take place through the ‘comply or explain’ principle, in which companies must publicly justify their actions if breaching government guidelines.

The production of one of these materials, for example, soy in Brazil, could allow for 2.1 million hectares of legal deforestation, an area larger than Wales – whilst Brazil is in the process of proposing measures to weaken existing forest protection.

The first letter also asks Defra to align the definition of ‘deforestation-free’ with the calculated requirements necessary to meet net-zero targets, and to adopt thresholds that reflect the size and impact of a company, so that small businesses are less affected.

The Environment Bill was first announced in July 2018, failing to pass through Parliament in December 2019. However, it was reintroduced into Parliament in January 2020, with delays ongoing since that point.

The Bill aims to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, and reduce waste through a number of measures, including a new Office for Environmental Protection watchdog, as well as forming a new legal framework for environmental laws previously supplied by the EU.

However, the bill has been met with criticism by environmental groups and politicians alike. Friends of the Earth has argued that the watchdog would result in a reduction in environmental protection, rather than an increase, as it would need greater enforcement powers, and many campaigners are calling for short term environmental commitments, not just long term targets. MPs and wider industry have shared these concerns, arguing that the OEP gives the Government a ‘get out of jail free card’ when it comes to complying with environmental law.