Diminishing the EU’s deforestation footprint: The where and the how

Under the European Green Deal, the EU has pledged to minimise its contribution to deforestation and forest degradation around the world and to promote the consumption of goods from deforestation-free supply chains. But what will that mean in practice?

If the EU and its Member States are now serious about reducing global deforestation, they need policies and actions that help to preserve forests in the tropics

Net forest loss is now particularly concentrated in the tropics, with temperate forests generally expanding again after historical deforestation, although forest degradation is occurring throughout the world. Past EU and Member State policies have primarily focused on conserving forests within its own territory, with limited attention given to also reducing demand for timber or for products from former forest land outside Europe. This has resulted in simply exporting problems to other parts of the world: creating leakage. If the EU and its Member States are now serious about reducing global deforestation, they need policies and actions that help to preserve forests in the tropics.

To do this effectively, we need to know where the action is most urgent. A new analysis from WWF identifies the 24 most significant deforestation fronts in the world, defined as forests that have both high levels of deforestation and large areas still under threat, with low levels of protection and active forest clearance underway. The analysis includes, for the first time, an assessment of forest fragmentation, one of the main causes of forest degradation, which often leads directly to forest loss. As expected, the identified deforestation fronts are almost entirely in the tropics, ranging from Australia to Zambia (see box).

Box: 24 most significant deforestation fronts in the world (WWF 2021)




1 Amazon – Brazil

10 West Africa

18 Mekong – Cambodia

2 Amazon – Colombia

11 Central AfricaCameroon

19 Mekong – Laos

3 Amazon – Peru

12 Central Africa Gabon/Cameroon/

Equatorial Guinea

20 Mekong – Myanmar

4 Amazon – Bolivia

13 Central Africa – DRC/CAR

21 Indonesia – Sumatra

5 Amazon – Venezuela/Guyana

14 Central Africa – Angola

22 Indonesia – Malaysia Borneo

6 Gran Chaco — Paraguay/Argentina

15 East Africa – Zambia

23 New Guinea

7 Cerrado – Brazil

16 East Africa – Mozambique

24 Eastern Australia

8 Choco-Darien – Colombia/Ecuador

17 East Africa – Madagascar


9 Maya Forests



More than 43 million hectares were lost in the deforestation fronts alone between 2004 and 2017, about twice the area of the UK. Perhaps even more significant, almost half (45 per cent) of the standing forests in the deforestation fronts have undergone fragmentation, making them more prone to fire and human disturbance. Deforestation is continuing fast, despite decades of efforts to reduce levels of loss. Indeed, some studies suggest that the rate of forest clearance has been accelerating over the last couple of years. 

Between 1990 and 2008, consumption in the EU was responsible for the deforestation of an area the size of Portugal

The focus on the tropics doesn’t mean that everything is well in the rest of the world. Forest loss and degradation continues in many other countries, significant fragmentation for example is ongoing in several European countries, such as Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Poland. But the study by WWF shows where losses are happening fastest, and to greatest effect. The amount of intact forest, which is the forest type most resilient to environmental stresses such as climate change, is becoming perilously small. Along with its catastrophic impacts on biodiversity, forest degradation and loss undermines many ecosystem services relating to carbon capture and storage, disaster risk reduction, and food and water security.

Land clearance for commercial agriculture and plantations is by far the largest cause of loss, often driven primarily by land speculation rather than the absolute need for food production.  Deforestation is especially linked with the production of beef, soy, palm oil, cocoa and rubber, all important export crops. The EU is a major importer of all these products. A report from the European Commission calculated that between 1990 and 2008, consumption in the EU was responsible for the deforestation of an area the size of Portugal.

How to address deforestation on the ground?

Multiple ways of reducing deforestation have been tried by governments and NGOs. Some work better than others, all have limitations.

Area-based responses

Area-based responses – protected and conserved areas, tenure rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) and moratoria on forest conversion – have been shown in many cases to prevent loss of particular forests and are still probably the most effective tool in the toolbox of producing countries. But they don’t stop deforestation beyond their boundaries and can simply displace forest loss elsewhere, including to valuable grassland and savannah.

Deforestation in Cerrado, Brazil

Thus, with the demand for agricultural products remaining the same – or even increasing – efforts to conserve the Amazon have resulted in contributing to rapid vegetation clearance in the Cerrado, an immensely rich area of savannah in Brazil, now under severe pressure.

According to the transparency initiative Trase, the EU imported almost 13 million tons of soy from Brazil in 2017. The Cerrado supplies a major part of the EU’s soy imports, many of which are therefore tainted with deforestation.

Similarly, policies aimed at preventing further losses of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, already reduced to a few fragments, have helped push deforestation further south including into the Gran Chaco in Argentina and Paraguay, which is becoming a major source of beef. Furthermore, hurried efforts to reverse forest loss, through afforestation programmes driven by simplistic area-based targets, are in some cases taking place on natural grasslands with valuable ecological and socio-cultural values, making things worse rather than better.

Sector-specific responses 

Sector-specific responses – voluntary certification schemes, incentives to encourage deforestation-free supply chains and establishing payments for ecosystem services – are all important but they have so far had limited impact at scale, or in the most threatened forests.

FSC certification has a minimal impact in any of the deforestation fronts identified by WWF

FSC certification, for example, has a minimal impact in any of the deforestation fronts. Whilst it is an important instrument for improving forest management, it has as yet not generally proved effective at reducing rate of loss, partly because drivers are shifting from the timber trade to global food markets. Hopefully, the other sector-specific certification schemes will be able to help. But many deforestation fronts are found in areas with relatively weak governance, where voluntary conservation approaches are often less effective, and certification alone can never cover the whole market or provide sufficient safeguards, which is why there is a need for strong supportive legislation.

More and more, those working to reduce deforestation are pinning their hopes on integrated approaches, such as result-based payments for reducing deforestation (e.g., REDD+), jurisdictional and landscape approaches, all anchored within strong government policies. These recognise the power of markets and finance but also accept that a comprehensive legal framework is needed to ensure compliance. While there is consensus that this marks an important way forward, progress in developing some of the components, such as national and jurisdictional REDD+, is not yet matched by sufficient action on the ground.

What should the EU do?

As a major importer of products associated with deforestation, the EU and its Member States can be influential in reducing deforestation globally by promoting strong incentives for a more sustainable approach to agricultural production.

Saving forests at the expense of grasslands, savannahs and wetlands will simply move the problems from one place to another.

The scale of loss in some of the world’s most valuable natural forests reinforces the need for a binding agreement to ensure that products placed on the EU market do not contribute to deforestation. The European Commission is committed to putting forward a proposal for an EU deforestation initiative this year. The need for this initiative to be a strong, binding piece of legislation is already supported by over a million people and by the European Parliament. It seems that the Commission is thinking along the same lines, as confirmed by President Ursula von der Leyen’s reference to ‘new legislation’ at the recent One Planet Summit. The Commission is also making links to the wider challenges, recognising that reducing deforestation, especially in the tropical areas, helps to reduce the risk of future pandemics. (See also IEEP blog here.)

Such an EU initiative could prove transformative. But to be that it needs to be enacted through a policy framework that ensures maximum effectiveness across ecosystems. Saving forests at the expense of grasslands, savannahs and wetlands will simply move the problems from one place to another.

Consequently, the new EU policy framework needs to be cross-commodity and for all biomes. Identifying the main areas of global concern (e.g. understanding their land-use dynamics) and linking those to key imports and their value chains is a critical first step in the EU process, with studies like that of WWF paving the way.

Next steps include the identification of policy measures that, on one hand, create a clear framework of standards for EU imports and, on the other, support the EU trade partner countries to meet these standards, including through scaling up integrated management approaches as described above. This will be a combination of measures taken within the frameworks of standardisation, trade and development cooperation, with likely links to due diligence procedures by actors in both exporting and importing countries.

Addressing consumers in the EU will also play a crucial role, with measures needed to be put in place that steer the EU towards a more sustainable direction, both in terms of products consumed (e.g. origin and production methods) and the overall levels of consumption.