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.
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.
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.