As the UK turns away from Europe and towards Asia, the European Union must take note. Asia-EU cooperation that prioritises trade and sustainability is imperative to safeguard the world from future pandemics and ecological crisis, argues Isabel Schatzschneider. 

A recent UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, Making Peace with Nature, provides a scientific blueprint to tackle the emergencies that paved the way for the Covid-19 crisis: climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and pollution. The report calls for a partnership between every member of society, to protect the environment and prevent future catastrophes.

Partnerships, however, are not enough by themselves. Action is required. With further evidence supporting the link between deforestation and public health, the EU has no choice but to act and leverage its trade relationships with producer nations in order to prevent further deforestation. The increased contact between humans and wild animals as a result of ecological disruption and agricultural expansion risks a rise in diseases.

At the 'Climate Change ? New Economic Models' conference, Portugal's prime minister António Costa stated that the EU's guiding financial model is ill equipped to tackle the environmental crises of today.

Yet, what has been misleading the EU's economic model is their unsatisfactory approach to sustainability, trade and global forest management. So far, the EU's approach to trade has ended up alienating the most important crucibles of biodiversity in Asia, while emboldening some of the biggest despoilers of biodiversity and polluters in the Americas.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation's new report highlights how EU policies have unfairly targeted Asian commodities by favouring protectionist market dynamics which harm the environment.

The EU banned the import of palm oil from 2030 in an effort to combat deforestation in Asia, despite clear evidence that this would be counterproductive, causing further damage to the environment. In fact, the mounting scientific evidence shows that sustainably cultivated palm oil requires ten times less land than rapeseed, coconut, soy and sunflower to produce the same amount of oil. By banning palm oil, the effects of ecological degradation are simply transferred elsewhere.

At the same time, despite its palm oil ban the EU continues to import beef and soy, the top two contributors to deforestation globally. Alarmingly the deforestation in the Amazon has reached a 12 year high and scientists warn it has reached an irreversible 'tipping point'.

This EU double standard has been clearly outlined in the Konrad report as creating a trust deficit between the EU and ASEAN nations, preventing joint collaboration to tackle deforestation. The fact that ASEAN nations are excluded by the EU from important sustainability debates only serves to further increase the risk of future pandemics.

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The EU must realise that its ban has not stopped palm oil production. It continues without regard for the EU environmental standards and regulations. This will lead to harmful effects on the diverse wildlife found in Asia's tropical forests, which will in turn lead to future threats to public health ? a correlation which cannot be divorced from the economy.

The Konrad report identifies a crucial pathway and a missed opportunity for a future partnership with Asia. The report illustrates how the EU could agree on trade deals that incentivise producer nations and local businesses to uphold sustainability standards.

By working towards a trade deal with ASEAN, the EU could help in the production of sustainable palm oil and limit deforestation by introducing mandatory sustainable standards. The EU could also make efforts to assess existing local sustainability standards.

The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard, against which almost 90% of Malaysian palm oil is now produced, already meets the EU's key sustainability criteria.

MSPO scheme is mandatory, enforceable and designed to be accessible to the smallholder farmers who account for some two-fifths of palm oil production. MSPO is therefore a nationally-mandated sustainability?a world first. Naturally there is room for improvement, but it is worth the EU making the effort to have conversations with the local authorities to support and encourage further progress in sustainability.

Boosting the economy while safeguarding the environment are not incompatible – in fact, the EU consistently overlooks how Asia has already offered an adaptable blueprint through strict and proactive measures which have largely kept the virus at bay and allowed their economies to stay afloat. While Europe's economy is only expected to grow by 3.7% in 2021, ASEAN nations are predicted to rebound by over 6%.

The worldwide pandemic has shown that we must push for sustainable production in both EU and Asia. This requires a revitalised approach to trade, with biodiversity enshrined at its core and which incentivises the transition to sustainable production.

By working with producer nations, the EU can enforce sustainable practices, use the lessons of the pandemic to capitalise on its environmental goals and ensure an ethical trade relationship.

Without cooperation that prioritises trade and sustainability, the world is vulnerable to future pandemics and untold misery once again. We must learn from our mistakes to safeguard our future.

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