Defining 'Sustainable' Palm Oil Production

The New York Times: Pete Browne: 7 November 2009

R.S.P.O. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil upset some conservationists when it concluded its annual meeting this week without including greenhouse gas emissions standards in its certification process.

Earlier this week the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association of palm oil producers, manufacturers, and environmental groups, concluded its annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a decision not to include greenhouse gas emissions standards in its certification criteria for 'sustainable' palm oil.

Commenting on the decision in an e-mail message, a spokesman for the environmental group WWF, Adam Harrison, said his organization was "disappointed" that the association did not decide to implement the emissions reduction recommendations of a working group within the roundtable.

However, he added, "They reached a compromise which sees other issues like emissions from fertiliser use, fuel use, methane from mill wastes and the maintenance of the water level in plantations on peat being accepted."

Palm oil is used in cooking, consumer products and biodiesel. The roundtable includes consumer giants like Unilever and Nestle, and environmental organizations like Conservation International and WWF, among its 389 members, and was formed in 2004 to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

But according Kenneth Richter, a biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth, even as the roundtable aimed to address the emissions arising from the conversion of forest and peat swamp areas into oil palm plantations, "attempts to develop appropriate criteria have been frustrated by roundtable members representing Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil growers."

Members agreed to consider implementing voluntary measures to encourage producers and buyers of palm oil to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but, Mr. Richter said, the roundtable "is already a voluntary initiative. So this is a voluntary mechanism of a voluntary standard."

By refusing to bring greenhouse gas emission standards into their certification scheme, Mr. Richter continued, "palm oil producers have themselves answered the question of whether palm oil can be a sustainable biofuel -  with a resounding - 'No'."

Friends of the Earth published a list of loopholes in the roundtable's sustainable palm oil certification, for instance saying it would not stop deforestation caused by the expansion of palm oil production.

Greenpeace called the roundtable itself greenwash, pointing to evidence of members bulldozing huge tracts of land. Separate reports from Uganda also suggest some roundtable members are not complying with the principles of the organization.

Despite the setback, WWF remained upbeat following the meeting.

"All the potential buyers of palm oil - the food and cosmetics industry - want low emissions palm oil," Mr. Harrison said. "It may not have been a perfect outcome, but the issue of deforestation caused by palm oil is going to be tackled."

More than 250,000 metric tons of certified sustainable palm oil has been sold since it was first made available late last year.