The EU’s Carbon Footprint Is Bigger Than You Think

The European Union (EU) prides itself on being among the developed world’s most progressive champions of a low-carbon economy. Since 1990, the EU has decreased its carbon emissions by 8% — a good achievement compared to other large powers.

cropland bordering rainforest, Iguacu National Park, Brazil

Cropland bordering rainforest habitat near Brazil’s Iguacu National Park. According to a recent study, one-third of Brazil’s emissions from deforestation are “exported” in the form of soy and cattle. (© Frans Lanting / Frans Lanting Stock)

That story, however, hides another one: Throughout the same period of time, the EU has massively increased its imports of carbon-intensive products.

One example is the importation of consumer goods to the EU from China, the global leader in greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, a large number of EU factories have relocated to China, essentially transferring emissions from one continent to another. A lot of the demand remains in Europe, however, and that side of the footprint is not accounted for.

The most striking case is probably palm oil — a controversial topic that my colleague John Buchanan blogged about earlier this week. EU imports of palm oil have multiplied by five since 1990. In response to strong demand for palm oil from the biofuel and food industries, EU imports are expected to increase by another 50% by 2020.

This explosion of demand, coupled with inadequate environmental regulation, is causing deforestation in tropical countries, resulting in massive CO2 emissions. It is part of why Indonesia has become one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Researchers are starting to respond by re-evaluating CO2 emissions, allocating them to countries where products are consumed rather than produced. For example a recent study led by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research shows that one-third of Brazil’s emissions from deforestation are actually “exported” in the form of soy and cattle. The EU, the U.S., China and Russia are the main consumers.

So why focus on the EU? True, the U.S. has a higher footprint per capita, and China’s global impact is growing much faster. But the EU remains central to this debate for two reasons:

1)     Its huge economic and environmental footprint.

With more than 500 million inhabitants and high consumption patterns, the EU remains the world’s largest importer. Specifically, the EU is the:

  • Top importer of soy (tying with China), accounting for one-third of global soy imports
  • Top importer of coffee, importing a staggering 65% of the world’s traded coffee
  • Top importer of timber
  • Second-largest importer of palm oil after India

2)     Its willingness to address global sustainability issues.

The EU is a constructive force in fields such as environmental law, climate action and the fight against deforestation. Sustainability issues around soy, palm oil and biofuels are much debated in Europe, and although adequate responses take time to develop, politicians in some EU countries are already taking action.

Of course, the EU is not fully responsible for the consequences of its importations. For example, it is primarily up to the government of Indonesia to ensure that its palm oil is produced in a way that is socially and environmentally responsible.

If the EU is serious about fighting climate change, however, the global footprint angle cannot be ignored. The EU can and should use the weight of its market to help shift the production of major commodities (such as oil palm, soy and coffee) toward zero net deforestation models.

How can this be achieved?

At CI, we believe the EU should set a very clear goal, such as achieving zero net deforestation caused by its agriculture imports by 2020. Next, the European Commission — which represents the collective interests of the EU — could propose strategies toward this target for each major commodity, with adequate regulations and incentives.Such is the EU’s power and influence that if it sets an ambitious target like this, it could create global momentum toward truly sustainable supply chains.

Jean-Philippe Palasi, Jessica Donovan and Liberian government officials after meeting on sustainable palm oil in Liberia

Jean-Philippe Palasi and Jessica Donovan of CI-Liberia with two officials from the Liberia Forestry Development Authority, after a meeting on sustainable palm oil. (© Conservation International/photo by Jean-Philippe Palasi)

Using its development funding, the EU can also do a lot to help producer countries — particularly the least developed countries — reform their production systems. For example, Liberia has great potential for sustainable palm oil, but needs support in land-use planning and the development of a national palm oil master plan.

Many voices in Europe, from environment and development NGOs to consumer groups and businesses, are calling for action to make widely used products more sustainable. CI is currently leading a dialogue with other environmental organizations to identify potential corporate and public partners, as well as discussing the most feasible and effective policy options with EU officials.

By taking initiative in addressing its carbon footprint, the EU would send a strong global message to all people and companies throughout commodity supply chains, and would reinforce the EU’s leadership on climate change action at a time when we’ve never needed it more.

Jean-Philippe Palasi is the director of European policy for CI-Europe. 


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  2. gareth says

    does the use of the market system to curb sustainability issues not perpetuate the problem? is a growth economy capable of reducing its environmental impact? not just carbon emissions but environmental impact across the board. the danger of relying on political and market means is well highlighted here in that companies are encouraged to outsource their production based on these means. i wonder if setting targets and utilizing existing systems to achieve them is only perpetuation the same old dialogue.

    1. Jean-Philippe Palasi says

      Dear Gareth,
      I understand your question and yes, sustainability requires very substantial changes, not just using current systems but also changing them. CI is working every day on the ground in that spirit, developing new and different ways for nature and people.

      But in our experience, obtaining large policy commitments from massive powers such as the EU is also a powerful way of creating the desired change. In some cases the EU has introduced brand new approaches that have then inspired massive change at a global level — for example, the regulation of chemical products. We really hope to see the same level of ambition on addressing their carbon footprint.

      1. gareth says

        hmmm, absolutely. That kind of change has to happen slowly to allow people to get on board for ethical reasons rather than by force or legislation alone. I’m not sure if its the same in EU but here in Australia organic and ethical purchases are often inaccessible for mainstream markets. This of course creates a cycle of demand based on socio-economic status. If the markets themselves are to be part of the solution then its education for consumers as well as supply chains making choices for ethical production that aren’t attached to financial incentives. I mean, any of the infrastructural commitments like energy, water and production integration are a given. producers will be innovative but incentives need to come from the basic understanding and want for true sustainability through all levels of supply and demand. I do love your work, it invaluable. and your optimism is compelling.

  3. Alex says

    Very interesting article, Jean-Philippe. I’d like to throw something into the mix. It should be a priority to develop an integrated approach to food production, water and energy. Doing this will identify the interdependencies between each of these huge sectors. Is there work in CI currently looking into this – alongside the sustainability of global supply chains?
    Also, there could be an angle for creating economic insensitives for working more sustainably with the natural environment. For example; more and more farmers in the UK are becoming disillusioned with mounting pressures from supply chains and the financial return of their end-product. A greater emphasis on working with nature could encourage farmers to develop with sustainability at the core of their thinking (rather than the financial impact to their business). Changes to policy may also encourage global supply chains to choose more sustainable sources of food/products/energy over the mass-produced environmentally damaging sources that you have mentioned.

  4. Jean-Philippe Palasi says

    Dear Alex,

    Thank you very much for your feedback.

    On your first point: yes we are very much trying to link the issues of food, water and energy in a “nexus” approach as you suggest. It is highly complex but our science department and several of our field programs are exploring these issues. It is very encouraging that some of the governments we work with (such as Germany) are actively promoting such integrated vision in global development policy.

    I also agree with your second point. Yes, creating the right incentives for farmers is key. In several developing countries we have put in place “conservation agreements” with local communities (based on free, prior and informed consent), to understand their needs and aspirations and put in place incentives towards sustainable practices.

    I agree that many farmers are eager to change practices. It is also a significant trend in my country (France) and I believe there is hope. Ten years ago, organic farming was not taken seriously; now it is a full part of the curriculum in every French agronomy school.

    Thanks again

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