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Proposed California Law Would Punish Companies for Failing to Limit Harm to the Planet’s Forests

The legislation could affect everything from what paper gets used in state offices to what gets served in California cafeterias.

Trucks carrying palm fruit in Borneo, Indonesia, where palm oil is produced on tropical forestlands and vulnerable peatland. (Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo, special to ProPublica)

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In an effort to cut carbon emissions and forestall the climate crisis, California legislators are pushing a new law aimed at helping limit deforestation around the globe.

The proposed bill, called the California Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, or AB 572, would require companies that contract with the state to certify that their products do not cause the cutting of sensitive tropical forests or the destruction of boggy peatland soils in tropical regions — both of which contain enormous stores of carbon dioxide.

The bill appears meant to add muscle to what are currently voluntary corporate pledges to limit environmental harm in the production of soy, cattle, rubber, timber and palm oil. It could mean new restrictions on everything from the paper used in California’s office printers, to the wooden conference tables furnishing those offices, to the food served in state cafeterias, which may contain palm oil grown on former forestlands.

“Hundreds of companies have made a rhetorical commitment to remove deforestation from their supply chains,” said Jeff Conant, senior international forests program manager for Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that is backing the legislation. “But the only incentives for them to implement those commitments is market pressure or reputational risk.”

“This would be the first piece of legislation,” Conant said, “that puts that kind of commitment under the scrutiny of legislators.”

The bill’s backers assert that tropical forests cover 7% of the earth’s surface and are home to roughly half of the world’s species. Eighteen million acres of tropical forest are cut each year, the bill says, an act that both releases the carbon dioxide in the timber and ends the abilities of the trees to absorb additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As a result, tropical deforestation is one of the largest global drivers of carbon emissions.

California’s proposed legislation follows an investigation last year by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine into Indonesia’s role in producing palm oil on tropical forestlands and vulnerable peatland. That investigation found that some companies were illegally destroying protected forests there, leading to the release of more carbon in a year than all of Europe. The palm oil is used in food, but also for “green” biofuels once meant to serve as their own check on carbon emissions in Europe and the United States.

The bill’s author, San Jose assembly member Ash Kalra, also travelled to Brazil last year, where he witnessed a similar scope of forest destruction.

How such a bill would be enforced and exactly what it would mean for California remain open questions. In places like Indonesia, loopholes in regulations have allowed deforestation to continue despite laws banning it. California would not actively investigate compliance; it would instead rely on companies to self-certify that their supply chains are not contributing to tropical deforestation or peatland destruction.

But companies found to violate the commitment could see their contracts canceled and face fines — potentially even misdemeanor criminal charges — according to Kalra’s office. The bill would require the state’s Department of General Services to develop a set of formal guidelines for compliance, including a list of commodities that present a potential risk to forests.

“Unlike most corporate policies, the fact that this one includes real penalties for fake commitments gives it teeth,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of the anti-deforestation group Mighty Earth.

California — home to the world’s fifth-largest economy — plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, making it one of the most ambitious leaders in addressing the global climate crisis. No analysis has been done to quantify the carbon footprint associated with the state’s procurement contracts, and the proposed legislation would not be accounted for in terms of the state’s measure of total emissions, according to Conant.

But by leveraging its enormous purchasing power toward goals that are understood to dramatically reduce emissions, advocates say they believe California would be taking a significant step toward a carbon-minimized future.

In addition to Friends of the Earth, the bill is also sponsored by two animal rights groups, Peace 4 Animals and Social Compassion in Legislation. The bill will progress to a final Senate committee hearing Aug. 19 and a vote before the full Assembly by Sept. 13. If it passes, it will head to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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Portrait of Abrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten covers energy, water, climate change and anything else having to do with the environment for ProPublica.

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