The SPOM High Carbon Stock Study: A New Square Wheel

, former policy analyst, Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative | August 11, 2015, 1:57 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

Imagine you hear that a group of businesses has hired some of the best minds in the world to invent a new thing called a “wheel.”

“Strange,” you say, “don’t we already have wheels?” In fact, aren’t most businesses, consumer groups, and customers pretty firmly in support of these current “wheels?”

“Oh yes,” the business group may reply, “we have heard something about your ‘wheel’, but we think ours represents a square deal for all stakeholders.” Skeptical, you decide to give them the benefit of the doubt, and wait with bated breath for the new “wheel”’s release.

When it finally arrives, it is clear that much work has gone into it. The wheel looks strong, uses state of the art materials, and is beautifully designed. Unfortunately, it also looks like this:

No matter how well designed, a square wheel is not going to get us where we need to go

That is somewhat akin to the feeling I got when reading the HCS Science Study: Draft Synthesis Report. As I mentioned in a previous post, the report was sponsored by the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto group of palm oil producers in an attempt to re-define High Carbon Stock Forests (from here on I’ll refer to this report as “the SPOM study”). This step in essence ignores the High Carbon Stock Approach, which was first developed in 2010 and has wide support from businesses, NGOs, and technical experts. In attempting to reinvent the HCS wheel, the SPOM study falls far short of meeting consumer demands.

Can’t see the                     for the trees

The most obvious and significant way the SPOM study falls short is in refusing to define “forests” or “deforestation.” Their rationale is that these terms already have a number of definitions. But by skirting the issue of what definition of “forests” they’re using, the study sidesteps the major consumer demand for deforestation-free palm oil. Instead of devising a method to identify forests and plan development of oil palm plantations on non-forest land, as the HCS Approach does, they instead rely solely on calculations of ecosystem carbon content to determine which forests can be sacrificed. This distills the value of ecosystems down to a single variable and ignores all other potential benefits of forests.

The lack of a forest definition becomes problematic at other points in the study as well, since at times “forests” are used as the basis for decision making. For example on pg. 26 the report states that the 70 tC/ha threshold can be adjusted in “heavily forested countries.” How is one able to decide if a country is heavily forested if they have no way of knowing what is or isn’t forest?

Further, the SPOM study allows for much more clearing of land than the HCS Approach. Areas which the HCS Approach refers to as “young regenerating forest” would be available for clearing under the SPOM study.

Sarawak peat

Photo by flickr user: Wakx. Establishing an oil palm plantation on cleared peat swamps has the potential to release thousands of carbon emissions.

Continuing peat degradation

Another key component of consumer demands is the protection of peatlands. Emissions from peatlands are a big contributor to climate change and a major concern in the palm oil sector. While most peat would be protected under the method laid out by the SPOM study, it does allow for “conversion of small patches (<20 ha) of already cleared and drained peat land that can lead to a lowering of otherwise existing very high emissions from biological oxidation of peat and recurrent fires.” Even small amounts of already drained peat still produce GHG emissions. A recent study by Kim Carlson, my colleague Lael Goodman and I found that emissions from plantations established on peat range between 18-22 tC /ha/ yr. Over a 25-year plantation cycle that would be between 450 and 550 tC/ha emitted. That’s a lot of emissions and WELL above the study’s threshold of 75 t C/ha. From a climate perspective, it would be preferable to rewet the small patches of cleared peatlands.

Seeing how the sausage gets made

As companies implement sustainability commitments, transparency is key to maintaining the trust of consumers and watchdog organizations. Unfortunately, the SPOM study leaves a lot of transparency questions unanswered. There is some reference to the need for transparency in the mapping process (pg. 52) but no details of what that should look like. It is not clear what levels of information will be available to the public and in what forms. Further, it is not clear how or if decision-making processes will be transparent. For instance, figure C (pg. 13) lays out the “critical inputs and processes”. However all of the arrows feed into a “black”, or rather red, box from which outcomes are derived. There is no clear mechanism for how decisions get made, who makes them, and how they are reported. Does this decision making power rest with businesses, communities, watchdog groups, governments, or some combination of these?

Lack of transparency is evident in the study itself. This report is a synthesis of a number of consultants’ studies. These underlying studies, however, have not been made available for public review. The Appendices contain a summary of the findings from these studies, but it is not possible to conduct an adequate review of this document without seeing the underlying documentation.

Time to hit the road

If the SPOM were the only option for companies, many would be stuck on square wheels with no way to move forward. Fortunately, the HCS Approach offers a solution for companies that want to keep up with consumer demands and make progress on the deforestation-free road. Major consumer companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, Dunkin’ Brands, and Nestlé, and traders, representing over half of the palm oil traded globally, including Cargill and Wilmar International, have already agreed to follow the HCS Approach. If the SPOM companies want to be more than specks in a rearview mirror they need to swap out their wheels and get moving.

Posted in: Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Fred

    If the HCS Approach is so popular/good, why then, are many of its backers e.g. Wilmar, Cargill and Unilever also involved in the HCS Study? They obviously see some merit in it.

    The HCS Approach, as with much ‘deforestation’ policy, is incredibly prescriptive and does not necessarily take into account the desire of developing countries to develop their economies (and what right do rich countries in the West – which engaged in mass deforestation and destruction of ecosystems when their economies were developing) have to tell them what they can or can’t do?

    Whilst the HCS approach may be good in theory – in practice, as has been proved time and again, if local communities do not feel invested in forest protection schemes then it is often the case that they encroach on forest for their own economic reasons. The HCS study at least tries to take this into account. It may be less idealistic than the HCS approach, but pragmatism is almost always more effective.

    I think you raise some valid points, particularly around transparency – but ultimately you set out to bash the HCS Study (the square wheel metaphor was rather laboured, I must say) and which I feel undermines your argument. And you suggest no real alternative to the economic argument. How would, for instance, the heavily forested countries you reference ever have a chance to develop their natural resources without some land clearance? Surely it would be better – as the recent deal the Norwegian Government made with Liberia proves – to focus on realistically protecting and preserving key areas of forest (50% in the Liberian example), rather than trying to leave it all intact with unsuccessful results….

    • Fred,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You raise a number of great points, many of which go beyond just the SPOM v. HCS Approach debate. I didn’t mean to imply that the HCS Approach has solved all problems, particularly around high forested landscapes, government development plans, and community engagement, it certainly hasn’t. However, it is experimenting with ways to address these issues, and has being doing so longer, and with a broader support base than the SPOM group. I see no reason to create an entirely new method and venue to tackle these issues, particularly one that is driven entirely by businesses. An HCS process driven entirely by NGOs would be just as troublesome. The real strength I see in the HCS Approach is the broad base of support it has from NGOs and businesses. It is by no means perfect or complete, but it has a process and a structure in place that I am confident can help us find practical solutions to the problems you raise.
      To your question about Wilmar, Cargill, and Unilever’s involvement with the SPOM I certainly can’t speak to the companies’ specific motivation. Generally however, the SPOM is comprised mainly of some of the more conservative palm oil producers and traders. I think many groups, businesses and NGOs alike, were cautiously optimistic that the SPOM was an opportunity for these more conservative companies to catch up to the rest of the pack. Given the lackluster response to the SPOM study, it will be interesting to see how much longer peripheral groups continue to support the SPOM.