The World Meteorological Organization has just warned that the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold could be reached, temporarily, as early as 2025.
Words fail to express this looming catastrophe. Shifting energy systems is urgent, to say the least. This has taken the lion’s share of attention when it comes to climate action. But protecting natural ecosystems that help to regulate the global climate regime, host biodiversity, and provide humans with critical ecological services such as food and water security is just as crucial. That is why the EU’s announced deforestation package is of the utmost importance.
A 2021 World Wide Fund for Nature report revealed that the EU is actually the second biggest importer of deforestation after China. In 2017, it still accounted for about 16 percent of overseas deforestation and its associated greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a drop from earlier figures. In 2008, the EU accounted for more than a third of global deforestation linked to agricultural products. The union bears an enormous share of historical responsibility for the conversion of natural ecosystems for industrial agricultural purposes.
The new package, to be announced in June, will focus largely on agriculture and other industrial commodities related to deforestation. It will be based on a mix of voluntary and mandatory measures. It is expected that the package will place a lot of emphasis on private sector actors with mandatory due diligence measures that aim to ensure that production is deforestation-free.
This will be essential, along with a focus on strengthening governance systems so as to enshrine the protection of all ecosystems—including but not restricted to forests—in law and in development partnerships.
But the EU must go beyond the expected deforestation package and pursue active regeneration of critical ecosystems to fight scarcity, insecurity, and climate disruptions. These happen to be located for the most part in fragile and conflict-affected zones. They demand complex approaches to ecological, human, and political security.
The European External Action Service has already adopted language related to environmental peacemaking in relation to its mediation support activities. It now needs to rethink its competency pool accordingly and ensure that it works within the multilateral system to support conflict resolution and stabilization processes that place nature at the heart of security efforts.
This intimately relates to the deforestation challenge, since timber and biodiverse products are now increasingly part of conflict systems and transnational criminal activities.
Focusing on supply chain transparency and due diligence is essential. But working systemically on preventing deforestation and fostering regeneration will require improving approaches to security, anti-corruption, and predation efforts. Furthermore, it will require integrating ecological approaches into human rights and social empowerment efforts, and reimagining development pathways.
Yet, holistic approaches between initiatives such as the deforestation package, more ambitious conflict resolution, and innovative development pathways are still impeded by institutional silos, thereby preventing systemic change and adequate diversification of tools and competencies.
Finally, while the policy package is one step in the right direction, something much bigger needs to happen soon. An emphasis must be placed on smallholder farming and the midwifing of complex natural systems through food production.
Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization was already warning the world that smallholder farming had to be the way forward if food production were to remain possible on a planet with deteriorating soil health.
Instead, global markets have continued to push for intensive monocultures. This is not sustainable. Global food production and consumption patterns will ultimately need to change. This is about going back to localized, resilient agricultural systems.
Why? Because globally systematized food systems serve economic purposes while exhausting ecosystems of their biology and diversity needed to combat climate change, malnutrition, disasters, and food and water insecurity.
The EU’s package should therefore be but one step on a much longer journey aimed at rethinking economic models at all levels.
The challenge will be to marry adaptation and mitigation objectives. In the next decades, we will face more violent climate-related disasters. They will surely impact crop yields around the world, much like what we saw in the year leading up to the Arab Spring. To meet this challenge, we will need global safety nets, ensuring that global food production can withstand shocks.
At the same time, coming back to agricultural production systems that hone in on ecology, natural complexity, and local circularity will be key to ensuring resilience and, over time, mitigation. This will require supporting smallholder farming in every way possible, including through carbon credits and development aid. Just as importantly, the EU must lead the way to toward a different type of globalized food production and consumption system.
In light of the interconnectedness of the challenges, it is increasingly clear that the EU needs a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy transformation for its foreign policy. It has already started doing this at home with the Green Deal, particularly with its circular economy, biodiversity, and farm-to-fork strategies. It logically follows that the external dimension of the deal needs to question business-as-usual strategic and geo-economic behavior.
The EU’s credibility and effectiveness as a climate leader are at stake with this deforestation package.