RSPO: In with the new, out with the old!

As members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) prepare to vote on adopting a new global Standard for palm oil, WWF’s Global Palm Oil Lead, Elizabeth Clarke, reflects on the importance of voting yes.

© naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

WWF has just launched the latest edition of its Living Planet Report , and it makes for alarming and sobering reading. Underpinned by the Living Planet Index (LPI), produced in scientific collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it reveals an astonishing 60% decline in the size of average populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years. Along with overexploitation of our resources, agriculture is identified as the dominant cause. Just one way agriculture is driving the decline is that planting cash crops like oil palm, sugarcane and soybean has resulted in the clearing of 40% of the planet’s once forested land.

The Global Living Planet Index: 1970 to 2014

So does this mean we boycott palm oil? While oil palm has undoubtedly had devastating impacts on the natural environment, including to iconic species, substituting it for other oils can be worse given, amongst other factors, the land required to produce the same volume of oil. This topic has been well addressed, most recently by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As the Living Planet Report points out, exploding human consumption, enabled by economic development and the growth of the middle class, is behind the unprecedented planetary change we are witnessing. On the basis that global palm oil demand is expected to double between 2009 and 2050 — and that this is part of a wider trend of increasing global demand for vegetable oils — it is imperative that production takes place with minimal demand on land and the environment. What is absolutely essential is that those with the motivation and power to protect our planet and reverse the downward trend in biodiversity, use their voice and leverage in support of sustainable, responsible palm oil.

The responsible palm oil industry has a critical opportunity to respond to this challenge. On 15 November, the multi-stakeholder members of the RSPO — growers, traders, banks and investors, social and environmental NGOs, manufacturers and retailers — will vote on adopting a new global Standard for palm oil. This new Standard is a revised set of Principles and Criteria (P&C) against which palm oil producers can be certified as sustainable through an independent third-party verification process.

© naturepl.com / Christophe Courteau / WWF

Every five years the P&C are reviewed by a Task Force comprising all RSPO membership groups. The 2018 revision was incredibly comprehensive. With so many different stakeholders coming together, finding agreement and compromise is no easy task, but everyone could agree a significantly stronger Standard is needed, where responsible production must be free from deforestation, free from expansion and unsustainable replanting on peat, free from exploitation and free from the use of fire. It now represents an important tool that companies can use alongside others to implement their commitments to sustainability and NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation).

The revised Standard addresses areas of concern that disappointed many NGOs including WWF in 2013, and now incorporates many of the asks of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) and High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA), to which WWF is a member of both. These two groups, comprising a smaller subset of companies and NGOs, determined that a better, more responsible model of production is indeed possible. For High Forest Cover Landscapes , there are no easy answers on how to implement no deforestation. It is perhaps both circumspect and prudent that the RSPO and HCSA will tackle this discussion jointly within a working group, although concerns will run high for finding sustainable pathways in high forest cover “new frontiers” where governments have determined to expand palm oil production.

In addition to the P&C content being revised to represent a more sustainable model of production, it has been restructured to make it clearer and less ambiguous to audit against, the supply chain standard modules for mills have been integrated, and metrics have been introduced to make impact more measurable. RSPO is also introducing the concept of “shared responsibility” amongst members to deliver the Standard. All of which are welcome steps forward.

There are of course areas where the revised Standard could, in WWF’s view, be stronger. For example, whilst the requirements for traceability of all Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) entering RSPO certified mills has been made clearer, the transition period of three years is very lenient and falls short of POIG and WWF expectations. From experience in the ecosystem surrounding Tesso Nilo National Park, through the Eyes on the Forest partnership, WWF has shown that RSPO Mass Balance palm oil could be tainted with FFB from protected areas, Forest Estates and other places where oil palm is illegal, and/or contributing to deforestation and/or peatland degradation.

WWF’s Global Palm Oil Lead, Elizabeth Clarke with Harmoni, a new-born elephant in Tesso Nilo National Park. 75% of this park is illegally planted oil palm. The revised RSPO Standard has introduced tighter traceability requirements to ensure no sourcing from protected areas, although the transition period for compliance is lenient.

This is why implementation is so critical. As with all things, action will talk louder than words, but the basis of action must be from an agreeable starting point. This is what the Standard now represents. Let us then move beyond debate on the wording of the Standard, and move on to the far more pressing business of implementation and action. These are areas where the RSPO can and should be considerably stronger.

Voluntary global certification is no silver bullet nor singular solution to creating a responsible industry, and critics will point out that the RSPO is currently only accessible to the largest growers out there, when 40% of global production comes from smallholders and a sizeable volume from numerous small and medium sized companies besides. However, in a world where vegetable oil demand continues to increase whilst biodiversity continues to decrease, it is imperative that sustainable means sustainable for the market leaders. This is why WWF will be voting yes on 15 November for the Standard’s adoption, and expects all those who are truly committed to a sustainable, responsible model of production to do likewise.