The SPOM High Carbon Stock Study: A New Square Wheel

August 11, 2015
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

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.