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The world loses forests equivalent to the size of about 30 football pitches every minute due to deforestation, according to Defra

The UK government has announced a ban on imported commodities linked to illegal deforestation, after a two-year delay.

In a move similar to the EU’s anti-deforestation law that was implemented in June this year, Britain will finally impose strict due diligence regulations on importers of beef, leather, soy, palm oil, and cocoa.

Businesses with at least £50m in global turnover who trade more than 500 tonnes of the regulated commodities in their operations need to produce a declaration showing their imports did not come from illegally deforested lands.

Despite widespread support in a consultation by Defra on the law last year, the government has not included coffee in the list of commodities, unlike the EU’s regulation.

Rubber, which the European Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) recognises as a forest-risk commodity, is also excluded.

The new requirements are part of an amendment to the Environment Act that had been proposed more than two years ago but remained without effect until now.

PM Rishi Sunak announced the move at COP28, the UN’s climate summit in Dubai, just days after a group of some of the biggest UK supermarkets signed a letter asking the government to formally introduce the legislation.

They urged the PM to live up to the landmark international agreement to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030 brokered by the UK at COP26 in Glasgow.

The new legislation “will be laid when parliamentary time allows”, a Defra statement said, and companies who break the law face “unlimited variable monetary penalties”.

There will also be an undetermined grace period for companies to prepare for the regulation.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay said: “Globally, we lose forests equivalent to the size of about 30 football pitches every minute. It’s why we are cleaning up supply chains to make sure big businesses in the UK aren’t responsible for illegal deforestation.

“It also means shoppers can be confident that the money they spend is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”

Campaigners have welcomed the announcement but warned the UK risked falling behind the EU in the race to net zero by failing to introduce equally tough guidelines.

“This new UK legislation falls short on its ‘world-beating’ promise made by the UK government at COP26,” claimed Gemma Hoskins, UK senior director at environmental group Mighty Earth, as it “fails to match the ambition of the European Union Deforestation Regulation, which seeks to end both legal and illegal deforestation.”

The Mighty Earth director pointed out the announcement failed to address some “crucial” loopholes, including the fact that a huge share of deforested land in Brazil is technically legal, and that smaller businesses importing up to 500 tonnes of the forest-risk commodities were exempt.

“The government has left UK supply chains at continued risk of exposure to deforestation-linked products ending up on our supermarket shelves,” she added.

How will the EU’s deforestation law affect UK commodity markets?

Leaving rubber out of the commodities list was also “a major omission given that the UK is a big importer of natural rubber via vehicle tyres”, Hoskins said. “[It] spells bad news for the threatened forests of southeast Asia.”

International NGO Global Witness also warned of the risks of not including coffee in the legislation. Analysis by the group and trade data platform Trase showed UK coffee was responsible for forest loss equivalent to around four times the size of Glastonbury Festival between November 2021 and July 2023 alone.

This put coffee in the top five UK deforestation risk commodities by estimated impact in the study, which looked at direct commodity imports only.

Global Witness senior policy advisor Alexandria Reid said “the fact that coffee is not on the list leaves a bitter aftertaste – ministers need to add this product as soon as possible so the UK public can rest assured their morning brews are deforestation-free”.

Further data from the group published last month also showed that UK imports of seven commodities – including all five from the new list – were responsible for 20,400 hectares of deforestation in the two-year period of delay in bringing forward the Environment Act amendment.

Global Witness is calling on the government to lay the regulations before parliament “as soon as possible” to prevent further delays.

“This leaves the UK lagging far behind the EU, which earlier this year passed its own law covering all deforestation regardless of whether it is illegal in the source country,” Reid said. “We urge ministers to strengthen these laws to ensure we end commodity-driven deforestation by the 2025 global deadline.”

Read more: UK could become ‘dumping ground’ for deforestation-linked soy

The new law also does not cover the UK financial sector funding businesses linked to illegal deforestation overseas.

However, the introduction of the regulations will kickstart a nine-month review by the Treasury on how to prevent UK banks from investing in said companies.

BRC director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie said retailers “welcomed the announcement on UK deforestation due diligence legislation”.

“This will give confidence to British retailers and their customers alike, helping retailers meet their ambitious targets on deforestation and enable a greater supply of deforestation-free products in the UK,” he added.