Companies, with the support of governments, are using the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to secure less stringent regulations governing their impacts on forests and the environment, according to the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Mighty Earth.
“These bad actors are hoping the world won’t notice what they’re up to,” Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty Earth’s CEO, said in a statement. “They’re counting on the shadow of the coronavirus to cloak their misdeeds.”
Hurowitz’s report, published April 14, identifies major corporations representing industries ranging from logging in Indonesia to automakers in the U.S. and outlines their attempts — successful in many cases — to garner subsidies, loosen restrictions, and walk back commitments to climate-related targets amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Several companies, Mighty Earth said, have made clear their intentions to stick with their commitments. Volkswagen and BMW are still planning to meet Europe’s 2020 climate standards, and large palm oil buyers, including Wilmar, Bunge and Cargill, have cut ties with a company called Samling that’s been accused of deforestation.
Despite these encouraging signs, the group said, many other companies are looking for ways to benefit from the worldwide crisis.
“A lot of people are understandably furious about small-time coronavirus grifters, like the guy hoarding Purell in his garage,” Hurowitz wrote. “Sure, that’s bad, but it’s nothing compared to the cynicism and public health hazards created by leading coronavirus profiteers and their enablers.”
Indonesia scaled back requirements intended to ensure that timber came from legally harvested sources in March, as reported by Mongabay. Mighty Earth agrees with environmental NGOs who say the move will likely spark a resurgence in the clearance of Indonesia’s forests. Paradoxically, however, the furniture industry that has been pushing for the change may end up with fewer places to sell its wares, as Europe and the U.S. require such legality verifications for import, Mighty Earth said. China also has a rule set to go into effect in July 2020 that will outlaw products linked to illegal logging.
The report also suggests that subsidies from the U.S. government for the Brazilian meat producer JBS could encourage deforestation in the Amazon. JBS received $67 million as part of a package to help U.S. farmers hurt by the trade war with China. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is happening at a record-setting pace not seen since 2008.
As part of the coronavirus stimulus package in late March 2020, the farming industry as a whole received another $23.5 billion, the New York Times reported on March 27.
In the U.S., the auto and airline industries have leveraged the economic slowdown to secure concessions on their climate impacts, Hurowitz wrote. Congress included $29 billion in grants and loans for airlines, but they didn’t have to commit to going carbon neutral by 2025 for domestic flights as House Democrats had wanted. In late March, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration wrapped up its lowering of fuel mileage standards for carmakers. Companies like General Motors had agreed to improve their cars’ gas mileage as part of a bailout after the 2008 financial crisis.
“American taxpayers rescued the auto industry in 2009, but demanded and received a commitment from the auto industry to finally make better, more fuel efficient cars,” Henry Waxman, Mighty Earth’s chairman, said in a statement. “It’s shameful that auto companies like GM and Toyota have violated the spirit of this deal through their complicity in the gutting of this critical environmental and public health policy, and they should be held accountable.”
Oil and gas companies, and the lobbying firms that represent them, similarly used the pandemic to get regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency to back off enforcement of pollution regulations, Mighty Earth said.
“The companies and industries identified in this report are driving environmental destruction while taking advantage of a crisis that was caused by just this sort of reckless disregard for the natural world,” Hurowitz said in Mighty Earth’s statement. “We cannot let them get away with it. As we build a new economy for a post-pandemic world, we must prioritize the policies that will also help us confront the twin crises of climate change and mass extinction.”