“Sustainable” Palm Oil Should Not Drive Deforestation

November 30, 2012 | 12:19 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

We all know that “sustainable” is a good thing but the word is only as strong as its definition. Right now, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has a huge opportunity to strengthen its definition by adding critical forest and climate protections to its standards. The world is watching and waiting to see if “sustainable” palm oil will be a truly sustainable solution for the future.

palm fruit

A pile of palm fruit. Palm oil is the world’s must used vegetable oil and also a major contributor to tropical deforestation. (Photo Credit: Rhett Butler)

Out of the frying pan and into your shampoo

Palm oil, which is currently the world’s most used vegetable oil, is found in thousands of products we use every day. It’s not only used for cooking, but can also be found in everything from candy bars and cookies to cleaning products and shampoo and even fuel. But there is a flip side: palm oil production drives more tropical deforestation (a major contributor to climate change) than any other vegetable oil. The area used for palm oil production (primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia) has doubled in just a decade, and much of this land has come from clearing vast amounts of tropical forests and peat swamps that release significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when drained of water and then burned (or left to decompose).

“Sustainable” solutions?

If you’ve ever checked product labels or company websites from the brands you buy, you’ve probably come across references to “sustainable palm oil” but what exactly does that mean? The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides the Principles and Criteria (known as the P&C)  for “certified sustainable palm oil” and has members from many stakeholder groups, including palm oil growers, refiners, and traders, financial institutions, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, and non-governmental organizations. From Walmart and McDonalds to Kraft and Unilever, many companies you know and love are part of the RSPO and working towards solutions for their palm oil foot prints. The RSPO also includes the Union of Concerned Scientists – we joined in October to get more involved in pushing RSPO standards to be science-based.

Borneo peatland clearing

Peatland being cleared for palm oil plantations in Borneo. (Photo Credit: Rhett Butler)

Despite the RSPO’s good intentions, there are a number of ways that the group’s efforts fall short of producing truly sustainable palm oil.  The most glaring omission is that the P&C allow for conversion of peatlands and high-carbon secondary forests. Thus, “certified sustainable palm oil” can still drive tropical deforestation and still have an enormous carbon footprint.

There is hope however. The RSPO is currently undergoing a review of their P&C, as they plan to do every 5 years. This process has included two public consultation periods, the second of which ends on November 30th. Though the current draft is still very weak in terms of forest and GHG rules, UCS, along with other stakeholders, has developed a set of specific text changes which would ensure the protection of peatlands and secondary forests and reduce the GHG emissions from palm oil development. Additionally, a group of 10 prominent scientists, including UCS board member Stuart Pimm, sent a letter to the RSPO echoing similar points.

The future of sustainable palm oil

The success of the RSPO will rely heavily on the result of this review period. The group is set to meet in January to discuss the comments received and hopes to build consensus to move forward with a vote on updated standards in the spring of 2013.

Many companies from around the globe, including the Consumer Goods Forum, which includes 650 consumer goods manufacturing companies and major retailers, have made public commitments to achieving zero net deforestation in their supply chains. If the RSPO does not improve standards now, these companies will not be able to use RSPO-certified palm oil to meet their deforestation-free commitments.

In the meantime, the lack of these standards in the RSPO has not been preventing action. There are palm oil growers who have voluntarily banned planting on peat and have created strong protections for secondary forests. And there are consumer goods manufacturers that are specifically demanding palm oil with these additional criteria. This shows that it can be done – and can be done without the RSPO if the RSPO won’t add these standards.