Deforestation releases large stores of carbon into the air and warms the atmosphere © Raphael Alves/AFP

Large companies will face substantial fines if they cannot prove their supply chains are not linked to illegal deforestation under a proposed UK government crackdown.

Ministers have launched a six-week consultation on new measures which would make it illegal for businesses in the UK above a certain size to use commodities grown on land which has been deforested illegally.

Deforestation, which releases large stores of carbon into the air and warms the atmosphere, has made its way further into mainstream politics over the past year, with both the UK and the EU considering rules to outlaw the importing of products from illegally cleared land.

Under the proposed legislation, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said would be the first of its kind in the world, illegally produced commodities such as rubber and palm oil would “have no place in the UK market”.

Businesses will face fines if unable to publish information to show the origin of any commodities and ensure they are produced in line with local laws. 

The legislation would target a relatively small number of businesses, the proposals say. Employee or turnover thresholds would be set out in the secondary legislation.

Officials said the approach would minimise the regulatory burden on smaller businesses in the UK whose action in the supply chain would be less likely to have an impact.

Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, with naturalist Sir David Attenborough © Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

A regulator will check that businesses have complied with the regulation, and if found not to, the environment secretary will have the power to issue fines. The precise fine level would also be set out at a later date.

To satisfy the UK's demand for important commodities between 2016 and 2018, including beef, cocoa, palm oil, and paper and pulp, a total of 21.3m hectares of land, equivalent to 88 per cent of the UK land area, was needed each year, according to a recent report from environment group WWF.

The rise of economic hardship during the pandemic has fuelled deforestation around the world.

“The UK has a duty to lead the way in combating the biodiversity and nature crisis,” Zac Goldsmith, environment minister, said. “We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world's most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can't afford not to act as a country.”

Earlier this year, more than 40 European companies, including retailers Tesco and Marks and Spencer, warned they would boycott Brazilian products if President Jair Bolsonaro’s government did not act on deforestation. Institutional investors have also urged Brasília to halt surging deforestation.

Industry associations representing food and drinks makers, as well as retailers, welcomed the UK’s announcement.

Helen Munday, the Food & Drink Federation’s chief scientific officer, said many manufacturers had committed to working with their supply chain partners to achieve 100 per cent use of certified sustainable palm oil.

Leah Riley Brown, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, added that retailers were also collaborating with suppliers to reduce deforestation and drive greater uptake of certified sustainable products.

Andrew Terry, conservation director at ZSL, an international conservation charity, said the move “could be a significant step forward in efforts to decouple the production of key commodities consumed in the UK from deforestation”.

But Elena Polisano, forests campaigner at environment group Greenpeace UK, said the reference to local laws was “seriously flawed”.

“We’ve all seen the way President Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest,” she said. Greenpeace warned that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line for certain customers but continue to destroy forests to supply other clients.

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