Talk about bad timing. This last week, of all weeks, with the whole world focused on the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and one of its hottest topics being deforestation, the global public needed to be convinced of the timber sector’s commitment to improving its environmental performance generally and stamping out illegal logging in particular. So what do agriculture ministers at the Council of the European Union (CEU) do? They back proposed new measures to reduce the risk of illegal wood entering the EU which, by all accounts, have zero enforcement teeth (p5).

Unfortunately many will conclude that the timber sector must have influenced the politicians and persuaded them to reject tougher rules. But the truth is that large parts of the EU trade, including the UK Timber Trade Federation (TTF), are in favour of stricter sanctions.

The more extreme anti-illegal timber legislation proposals backed by some MEPs, such as the application of labelling on every stick of wood entering the EU, were clearly non-starters. But the TTF and others do want to see an actual prohibition brought in on trading in illegally harvested material.

The model held up by many for the EU to follow is the US Lacey Act. This obliges companies to exercise risk-based due diligence to avoid illegal wood entering their supply chain and, where it’s proven that they’ve failed to do this when found to be trading in illegal material, they can face a range of punishments, up to imprisonment. The US hardwood sector backed inclusion of timber in Lacey and says this has strengthened public perceptions of its green credentials.

Commenting on the CEU move, American Hardwood Export Council executive director Mike Snow said: “Any law which does not provide a credible deterrent to illegal operators will not be effective and the door to the common European market for suspicious timber could be left open by ‘less vigorous’ enforcement in some EU countries.”

The proposed European rules now go to the EU parliament for a second reading. Many in the timber trade are hoping that MEPs heed the US experience in making their final decision on the legislation.