Sustainable palm oil criteria “too little, too late”

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has voted to revise its principles and criteria for palm oil production.

The revisions include new criteria on reducing greenhouse gases emissions. There is also a new criterion relating to ethical business practices, which obliges RSPO member companies to implement anti-corruption policies.

The RSPO also now clearly states that there can be no forced labour on member plantations, and there is a new criterion requiring members to have a policy on human rights that is communicated to the whole company.

The environmental campaigning organisation Greenpeace welcomed the improvements on human rights and labour issues, but said that overall the revisions were weak and “too little, too late”.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s palm oil campaigner, Wirendro Sumargo, said: “Greenpeace is deeply disappointed that the RSPO wasted this opportunity and has let standards slide to the lowest common denominator.

“Rather than reward progressive companies such as Golden Agri-Resources that have put in place a zero deforestation policy, the RSPO has pandered to the most destructive elements of the palm oil industry.”

Greenpeace said it was dissatisfied with the proposals on greenhouse gas emissions.

“There is little question that the loss of rainforests is contributing to global climate change and a biodiversity crisis. But, for years, the RSPO – whose declared aim is to ensure environmentally responsible palm oil production – has been wrangling about how to deal with the massive greenhouse gas emissions caused by the clearance of rainforests and peatlands for the expansion of palm oil plantations,” Sumargo said.

“Rather than clearly banning peatland development and rainforest clearance, the proposed new standards and criteria encourage growers to establish new plantings on mineral soils and in low carbon stock areas.

“The only measures introduced to curb emissions from plantation development are a requirement to report on greenhouse gas emissions from forest conversion by December 2016 and a vague injunction to develop and implement plans to reduce emissions where feasible and practical.

“If the link is to be broken between palm oil and forest destruction, the RSPO needs to push for the strongest possible palm oil standards.”

The nature conservation organisation WWF, which is a founding member of the RSPO, and participated in drawing up the new standards, said the revisions didn’t include everything WWF had pushed for, but would better address the challenges facing the palm oil industry than the previous ones.

“While the revised principles and criteria are not perfect, on balance WWF believes that they are a step in the right direction and give progressive parts of the industry the right tools to demonstrate that they are acting more sustainably.”

WWF criticised the review for failing to accept “strong, tough, and clear performance standards on issues like GHG emissions and pesticides”.  It was, therefore, no longer possible for the producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they were acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

The organisation said it was asking progressive companies to set and report on performance standards within the framework set by the new RSPO principles and criteria. It wants them to take action in several areas:

– the immediate public reporting of GHG emissions;
– targets for significant emission reduction;
– achieving zero net emissions from new developments;
– ending the use of hazardous pesticides including paraquat; and
– only buying fresh fruit bunches from known sources.

“WWF now expects progressive RSPO members to set themselves the highest standard within the framework of the RSPO rather than the lowest that they can get away with,” said Adam Harrison, who leads WWF’s work on sustainable palm oil and represents WWF on the RSPO executive board.

“We ask others in the supply chain to reward innovative growers that make these commitments by buying their certified sustainable palm oil and taking their own parallel actions.”

The RSPO, which involves growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGOs, was set up in 2004 and has more than 1,000 members. Its purpose is to encourage the production of sustainable palm oil, i.e. palm oil that has been cultivated outside of areas that have a high conservation value.

While the roundtable’s aims are laudable, there are numerous loopholes, and some companies are improving their image by becoming RSPO members while producing very little sustainable oil.

Producers only have to certify a portion of their crop as sustainable to become RSPO members. If a company had a 15,000-hectare concession and half of it was covered with forest, it would only have to agree to protect a portion of that forest to satisfy the RSPO criteria.

Prior to the RSPO vote – at an extraordinary general meeting in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur – a statement was read on behalf of a coalition of German companies.

The companies welcomed the revised principles and criteria, saying they were “much more consistent and coherent” than the previous ones, but said they were dissatisfied with the standards on greenhouse gas emissions, peatland conservation, and the use of pesticides.

“Germany acknowledges the relatively low uptake of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), but provides an assurance that the industry in Germany is working towards a clear 100 percent CSPO commitment,” the companies added.

They urged members of the RSPO to mirror this commitment by addressing the numerous cases of members’ non-compliance.

It is estimated that just 15% of annual palm oil production worldwide is RSPO-certified.

Of this 8.2 million metric tonnes of RSPO-certified oil, produced on 2.2 million hectares of land, about 48.2% comes from Indonesia, 43.9% from Malaysia, and the remaining 7.9% from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil, Colombia and Ivory Coast.

Categories: Environment, Indonesia