TCS Daily

Blair's Global Environment Failures: It's Not Just Climate Change

By Alan Oxley - June 22, 2005 12:00 AM

George Bush's unwillingness to back Tony Blair's climate change initiatives for the G8 Summit in July is not the only recent global initiative of Blair's to flop. Less publicized, but just as prized by green NGOs, was Blair's recent failure to garner support for a global convention on forestry. While making a big deal about listening to Africans, he is not listening to developing countries when it comes to the environment. He is taking his cue from greens groups that have other ambitions.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have always regarded the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 as a partial failure because the Summit would not agree to a global convention on forestry. Developing countries saw the idea as an effort by greens to dictate growth strategies, and opposed it.


Since governments weren't going to protect the environment properly, green NGOs decided they would work on business instead. One strategy was to encourage business to create products for consumers who preferred "green products". No one should disagree with that. To further that end, the WWF developed the "Forest Stewardship Council" (FSC).


The FSC idea was that it would label timber products as coming from what it deemed "sustainably managed" forests and sell that label to distributors and retailers of timber products, provided the seller only stocked such labelled products. The scheme was never a commercial success. WWF discovered there only a few products where consumers will pay a green premium and those generally do not include timber products.


Timber industries worldwide didn't like the FSC. They had no say in the environmental standards it demanded. They were dictated by the FSC. It would control the forestry. It also set standards that governments would not set -- for example banning GMO technology.


Timber industries got together and developed their own standards. They consulted exhaustively with consumers, producers, governments and NGOs who would talk to them (Generally WWF refuses to consult in these processes, instead lobbying aggressively against them). The global alternative that ultimately emerged, the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC), meets best practice for global standards and is steadily gaining greater global acceptance than the FSC.


A number of timber companies and retailers and distributors in the industrialized world have adopted the FSC program. In most cases it is certainly not to do a lot of business (the US Forest Industry Association estimates only three percent of global timber products are sold under such labels) as much as to fold to the pressure of greenmail and to protect business from criticism.


WWF kept the FSC going with substantial funding from foundations, European governments and the European Union. It has courted official endorsement. The World Bank, a "partner" with WWF, officially endorses FSC. It is being promoted through European aid programs. Britain agreed to use FSC certification exclusively for government purchases (British business groups are contesting this).


Nor did WWF give up its quest to regulate forestry in developing countries. It developed two strategies. The first was to push again for a global convention on forestry, but stealthily. Following the Rio Summit, a "Forum on Forestry" was established in the UN to exchange information on sustainable forestry. There was no technical need for this. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) had longstanding programs for sustainable forestry. Five years ago, greens set the goal to build support in the UN Forum for an international agreement to regulate forestry policy. The British government even directly petitioned the forum to start work on a treaty. This failed. In May, the forum effectively buried the idea.


The second strategy was to turn up the heat with a global campaign against illegal logging. Blair's government backed this, too. It funded new research and strategies. The EU developed an inelegantly titled strategy called "FLEGT" (for "Forestry, Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade"). It proposed that developing countries enter "voluntary" bilateral agreements with the EU to ensure timber exports were verified to demonstrate they were not illegal. This was hardly voluntary: the EU threatened trade sanctions if developing countries did not go along. The EU singled out Africa and Southeast Asia as areas for special attention.


Illegal logging evinces emotive responses. Greenpeace complains of rapacious loggers, loss of biodiversity and alienation of forest dwellers. Dramatic numbers about loss of rainforest, particularly in the Amazon, are regularly trotted out. It is undeniable that in many developing countries, sustainable forestry is poorly practised.


Would a global forest convention end illegal logging? And how big a global problem is it? Most illegally harvested timber is consumed domestically and most is produced in Brazil, not necessarily because it has more illegal logging than anyone else (there are no dependable statistics), but because it is such a large economy and large forestry industry. So claims that a high share of timber production in developing countries is illegally logged will be distorted by the national Brazilian numbers.


No one really knows how much timber is illegally logged. But it is clear that it is not a significant share of world trade in timber. Controlling trade is not the key: illegal logging requires national governments to improve implementation of their own laws. So why does the EU threaten trade sanctions? It is simply bullying. That is why they focus on smaller countries.


There is something else. The EU and the British programs want developing countries to enshrine measures certifying timber is legally logged (Greenpeace is conveniently calling on them to use the FSC) in government to government agreements. In this way, certification becomes regulation. This is a ground up, step by step, strategy to build international regulation of forestry policy in developing countries.


Tony Blair tried to get his illegal logging strategy adopted by the G8 Environment Ministers when they met in March under British leadership. He struck out again. The Bush Administration would not go along. It and the US timber industry consider it is more effective to work with developing countries to develop effective means to implement national policies than to use trade coercion.


Tony Blair will continue to have failures with his global environmental initiatives while he pursues strategies to serve WWF's desire to control the world's forests.


Alan Oxley is the host of the Asia Pacific page of Tech Central Station.


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