A bulldozer cutting a logging road through rainforest in Borneo. Two new studies show that one-sixth of all emissions from the diet of a typical EU citizen come from tropical deforestation. Photo: Mint Images/REX

EU consumption results in high carbon emissions from tropical deforestation

A sixth of all emissions resulting from the typical diet of an EU citizen can be directly linked to deforestation of tropical forests. Two new studies shed light on this impact, by combining satellite imagery of the rainforest, global land use statistics and data of international trade patterns.

The link between production of certain foods and deforestation has been well documented. But two new studies explore the extent to which deforestation in the tropics is linked to food production, and then where those foods are eventually consumed.

In the first study, the researchers from four institutions, led by Chalmers University of Technology, focused on how the expansion of cropland, pastures, and forestry plantations has taken place at the expense of the rainforest.

“We can see that more than half of deforestation is due to production of food and animal feed, such as beef, soy beans and palm oil. There is big variation between different countries and goods, but overall, exports account for about a fourth of that deforestation which is connected to food production. And these figures have also increased during the period we looked at,” says Chalmer’s Florence Pendrill, the first author of the first study.

EU’s food imports part of the problem

Using this information, researchers reported in a second study the amount of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from this production and where the produce is then consumed. The figures for the EU are particularly interesting, since the EU is a large food importer. The EU will also present a plan soon for how to reduce its contribution to deforestation.

“This pattern is becoming increasingly clear,” says Daniel Moran, a researcher at NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Programme and one of the authors of the second paper. “We keep seeing wealthy consumer countries reducing their environmental impacts at home while their footprint in foreign countries, where regulations are often much weaker, grow unabated. It is important to hold foreign suppliers to the same standards we would as at home.”

The EU already has strict requirements in place connected to deforestation which producers of timber and wood products must adhere to in order to export their goods to the EU. This demonstrates their ability to influence other countries’ work in protecting the rainforest.

“Now, as the connection between food production and deforestation is made clearer, we should start to discuss possibilities for the EU to adopt similar regulations for food imports. Quite simply, deforestation should end up costing the producer more. If you give tropical countries support in their work to protect the rainforest, as well as giving farmers alternatives to deforestation to increase production, it can have a big impact,” Pendrill says.

Big variation between different countries

The current studies were done in collaboration with researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany, and NTNU. They are a continuation of research which was done through the Prince project (Policy Relevant Indicators for National Consumption and Environment), where the connections between Swedish consumption and emissions from deforestation were presented in the autumn.

NTNU Professor Richard Wood and PhD candidate Sarah Schmidt have been involved in several studies within that project to track Sweden’s global footprint over a range of different environmental impacts.

The studies indicate that, although there is a big variation between different EU countries, on average a sixth of the emissions from a typical EU diet can be directly traced back to deforestation in the tropics.

Emissions from imports are also high when compared with domestic agricultural emissions. For several EU countries, import emissions connected to deforestation are equivalent to more than half of the emissions from their own, national agricultural production.

“If the EU really wants to do something about its impact on the climate, this is an important emissions source. There are big opportunities here to influence production so that it avoids expanding into tropical forests,” says Martin Persson, the first author of the second study and an associate professor at Chalmers.

Florence Pendrill, Martin Persson, Javier Godar and Thomas Kastner: Deforestation displaced: trade in forest-risk commodities and the prospects for a global forest transition. Environmental Research Letters. Accepted Manuscript online 6 March 2019

Martin Persson, Javier Godar, Thomas Kastner, Daniel Moran, Sarah Schmidt and Richard Wood. Agricultural and forestry trade drives large share of tropical deforestation emissions. Global Environmental Change. Volume 56, May 2019, Pages 1-10