This has been a watershed year for tropical forests—and not in a good way. Massive fires have burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil. The result is huge uptick in greenhouse gas emissions due to carbon being released from not only trees, but also degraded carbon-storing peatlands and other high-carbon stock landscapes, the health of millions affected by haze, and the incalculable impacts to plant and animal biodiversity.
While the situation on the ground has been worsened by this year’s El Niño, which resulted in a longer-than-normal dry season, the fact that fires do not occur naturally in most tropical regions mean that humans are to blame. Strong evidence has connected these fires to clearing land for plantations and grazing. Moreover, much of this can be traced to just three globally traded commodities: palm oil, soy, and beef.
If there’s a silver living, it in the fact that the fires have sparked global attention. They have even led to widespread protests and calls for bans and boycotts on the use of forest-sourced commodities, and the companies behind them.Yet, quite possibly the biggest culprit is getting little attention. Data shows that since the dawn of the 21st century, China is responsible for the majority of growth in demand for forest-clearing products including palm oil soy, and beef. Furthermore, China is the world’s second largest economy, and the largest trading partner by revenue with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, the three main exporters of these tropical commodities. This means that stopping fires and deforestation is nearly impossible without action from China and Chinese companies.
Despite this, much of the attention in the U.S. has focused on the role of businesses, their investments, and the long supply chains that connect consumers to tropical commodities. Blackrock, the U.S.-based investment company, has been called the “world’s largest investor in deforestation.” Amazon Watch, a non-profit monitoring the situation in South America, released a list of companies complicit in the region’s fires, including the U.S.-based Vanguard, State Farm, T. Rowe Price, Cargill, Citigroup, France’s BNP Paribas and Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus. Mighty Earth, another U.S., non-profit, includes Costco, Sysco, McDonald’s, Mars among dozens of companies on their own recently released list.
“The outpouring of support around the Amazon fires from the general public is important,” Emma Lierley, forests communications manager at the non-profit Rainforest Action Network, told Earther. “People are remembering that rainforests are important to the planet and for local and indigenous communities, and are calling on western banks and companies to pull their financing from these devastating projects.”
China’s economic growth in the past two decades have transformed global supply chains and trade, though, and environmental campaigning has not caught on. Some of this is logistical; Amazon Watch, Mighty Earth, and other non-profits focusing on fires and deforestation are primarily based in the U.S. and Europe, and have access to more data on domestic companies than those in faraway China. A heavily constrained press and civil society in China mean that consumer awareness about the country’s role in deforestation is likely low.
That’s a problem because without action from China, efforts to save the Amazon and Southeast Asian tropical forests could be for naught. Sometimes, the connection is direct. Take palm oil, the production of which has led to deforestation biodiversity loss., In response to consumer and civil society pressure, the Europe Union has made plans to restrict its imports. Indonesia and Malaysia’s response? Look to China, where no such restriction exists, as an alternative, and a recent move to reduce import tariffs by China could expand palm oil imports to the country. Europe’s move, while important, may end up having negligible impact on the ground.
It’s not just China, either. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are growing their imports of Southeast Asian palm oil, while Thailand and Egypt are becoming major importers of South American soy. In fact, nearly every tropical commodity connected to deforestation has a growing market in Asia.
“For rubber, palm oil, soy, and tropical timber, the Asia-Pacific [region] is overwhelming the main global importer,” Duncan Brack, a forest and commodities expert and senior research fellow at Chatham House, told Earther.
As fires rage in Brazil and Indonesia, it’s clear that China and other countries in the region must change if we are to have any chance to save our global forests. Even if every company on Amazon Watch or Mighty Earth’s list cleaned up its act, China’s outsize means it could have little impact on the ground.
While the current situation is bad, there are signs of changes on the horizon. The China Sustainable Palm Oil Alliance was created last year and aims to get more Chinese companies to commit to only importing sustainable palm oil. This means, among other things, only sourcing palm oil not grown on recently deforested or burned land.
“China’s attitude towards sustainable palm oil will have a significant impact on the global supply chain,” Darel Webel, CEO of the non-profit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, told Earther.
There are other hopeful signs. Ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit, China said it would take the lead on getting countries to adopt “nature-based solutions” to address climate change, which could also include biodiversity benefits such as reforestation and efforts to expand grasslands and wetlands. There are also signs that the Belt and Road Initiative—China’s plan to global development strategy that has funded massive infrastructure projects with broad climate and environmental impacts across the developing world‚could turned into a Green Belt and Road.
These show that China does respond and take its climate commitment seriously. The country is in line to meet its Paris Agreement commitments well ahead of schedule. But importing forest-destroying commodities that release carbon dioxide outside China’s border are also a form of what experts call “emissions leakage.” That problem has plagued many Western nations as well as they outsource the production of many goods—and the associated carbon emissions—to developing countries.
Due to the modern realities of global supply chains, if China’s initiatives succeed or grow, they could have vastly more impact than any campaign targeting a marginal U.S. or European buyer. The Amazon and Indonesia fires show how vulnerable tropical forests are. Protecting them should be a priority for all countries—especially those, like China, who increasingly depend on imports of tropical commodities.
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environment and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.