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Impasse over palm oil emissions at RSPO meeting

Environmentalists and palm oil producers meeting at the annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) were locked in an impasse over how to account for emissions from converting forests and peatlands to oil palm plantations, report conference attendees.

Environmental groups within RSPO tried to mandate that future oil palm expansion can only occur on land with net carbon storage lower than oil palm (less than 40 tons of carbon per hectare averaged over the 25-30 year lifespan of an plantation). Such a stipulation would preclude conversion of forests and peatlands to oil palm plantations, potentially greatly limiting expansion.

Last year’s RSPO meeting featured a row over a proposal to require satellite monitoring of RSPO members’ plantations.

Oil palm plantation expansion at the expense of natural forest in the Malaysian state of Johor. Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory / Google Earth.

In response, palm oil producers have questioned the scientific credibility of greenhouse gas emissions studies the RSPO is drawing upon to establish its emissions standard. The impasse has apparently produced a “toothless” (as one observer describes it) agreement to convene a second GHG working group to keep deliberating on GHG emissions of oil palm.

Jan Kees Vis, chairman of the RSPO, expressed frustration over the failure to reach agreement.

“We are disappointed because we wanted the target for this year,” Vis was quoted as saying by Reuters.

The initial set of RSPO criteria — which aim to improve the environmental performance of palm oil production — were approved last year after seven years in development.

‘Greener’ palm oil

RSPO was originally formed as a response to pressure from environmentalists who maintain that oil palm production has driven large-scale destruction of rainforests across southeast Asia over the past two decades, triggering the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions and imperiling rare species, including the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. RSPO has created a set of criteria to make palm oil production less damaging to the environment. These include using natural pests and composting in place of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers whenever possible, implementing no burn policies, sparing high conservation value forests from development, taking measures to reduce air pollution, and creating catchment ponds to prevent palm oil mill effluent from entering waterways where it would damage aquatic habitats. The hope is that CSPO can be sold at a premium to recoup the increased costs that certification entails.

Still not all environmental groups have bought into RSPO. Concerns over the certification standard have been stoked by pictures which activists claim show RSPO members continuing to clear high value conservation forest areas (HCV) in violation of certification protocol. Some critics have labeled RSPO a greenwashing initiative rather than a genuine effort to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. RSPO members have dismissed these charges but concede that the certification process is still evolving.

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