I’m Joss Lyons-White, a PhD researcher at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment.

My research is on the relationship between palm oil and deforestation and, in particular, the role played by voluntary commitments made by companies to achieving ‘zero deforestation’.

I’ll be joined on this AMA by my co-researcher Dr Andrew Knight, senior lecturer at Imperial and a Partner Investigator at the Centre of Excellence in Environmental Decisions at The University of Queensland.

In May 2018 Andrew and I published research on the existing barriers stopping palm oil companies from implementing their zero-deforestation commitments: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378017310117

Some background to our research

Lots of palm oil companies – ranging from palm oil producers and traders to consumer goods manufacturers and retailers – have adopted commitments to “zero deforestation”, or “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” (NDPE).

This means companies have promised to eliminate any association between deforestation and their operations. Lots of these commitments (including a collective pledge made by the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents over 400 consumer goods companies) are supposed to be implemented by 2020. However, recent reports by NGOs including Greenpeace and Global Canopy have suggested that companies are failing to implement their commitments and the 2020 deadlines are set to be missed.

About the study and next steps:

In 2016, we conducted a study that asked what barriers exist that stop palm oil companies from implementing their zero-deforestation commitments. We found that complex supply chains; a lack of consensus over what “deforestation” means; inadequate support from governments; and persisting markets for unsustainably-produced palm oil in India and China are all major barriers to commitment implementation.

Through my (Joss) PhD I am now investigating how zero-deforestation commitments can be implemented more effectively, via a study of the perspectives and attitudes that characterise the debate over ‘zero deforestation’ definitions; a study of power and relationships in palm oil supply chains; and a study of the effectiveness of boycotts as a tool for forcing companies to improve their practices.


Useful links:

We'll be back at 11:00 EST / 16:00 GMT to answer your questions!


UPDATE [11AM ET / 4PM BST]: And we’re LIVE!

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UPDATE [1PM ET / 6PM BST]: Thanks very much for your great questions. We’re heading off for now but we’ll be checking back in, so please do submit any more questions you may have.

And a big thanks to r/IAmA for hosting this AMA!

Comments: 228 • Responses: 9  • Date: 

fikis336 karma

I've dealt with FSC Certification as part of an industry that uses lots of wood, and I haven't been super-impressed with the process.

It seems like in these efforts, there is a real "fox guarding the hen house" problem, since the funding for certification comes from clients who want to be certified, and the standards are vetted by the industry itself, meaning that anything they view as financially burdensome is subject to veto.

I guess what I'm asking is this:

Is what you're doing legitimate, or is this cover in the guise of self-regulation, with the goal being to avoid more stringent regulations from governmental organizations?

Thanks for doig this AMA; look forward to your response.

ImperialCollege13 karma

This is a good question - many thanks, fikis.

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that we are researchers at Imperial College London and our research is independent. My PhD is funded by the UK Government Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Our research has not received funding from any palm oil companies.

It seems to me that there are two parts to this question.

The first relates to self-regulation and the absence of - or avoidance of - more stringent regulations from government.

The second relates to the legitimacy of private-sector initiatives, given that financial interests can conflict with environmental objectives (the “fox guarding the hen house” problem).

On the first point: self-regulation to avoid government regulation

Self-regulation of palm oil production emerged as a consequence of the perceived inadequacy of government regulation by NGOs in the early 2000s. As such, self-regulation by the private sector was largely driven by concerned NGOs, not by companies seeking to avoid government regulation. For example, the RSPO was established in 2004 following activism by WWF beginning in 2002. The mass adoption of zero-deforestation commitments by palm oil companies was largely driven by campaigns by Greenpeace and other NGOs between 2007-2010 (see Greenpeace’s ‘Cooking the Climate’ report).

So no, self-regulation does not appear to have been an attempt by industry to avoid government regulation.

It is widely accepted that self-regulation by the private sector is not a substitute for effective regulation by government (for a detailed discussion, see Lambin et al., Global Environmental Change, 2014). There remains an urgent need for improved government regulation and law enforcement in palm oil-producing countries such as Indonesia. Palm oil companies themselves have called for this (as we found in our own research). Government regulation and law enforcement to stop deforestation have shown signs of improving in palm oil-producing countries in recent years, but there is a long way to go.

On the second point: the “fox guarding the hen house”

In summary: the legitimacy of certification schemes which are based on self-regulation by industry is certainly an issue. However, certification schemes remain an important tool in the fight against deforestation. You mentioned FSC but RSPO is the main international multistakeholder certification scheme for palm oil, so we will focus on the RSPO.

First, the bad: the RSPO has been criticised for domination by commercial interests, an insufficiently strict standard and slow action on contentious issues. For example, most RSPO members are from industry, rather than NGOs, and the RSPO is only this year getting around to adopting a strict ‘no deforestation’ component (up until now, it has protected ‘high conservation value’ areas, although this does include primary forests). The RSPO audit process has also been criticised in the past for a lack of independent oversight. Greenpeace has always refused to join the RSPO because it says the standard is not stringent enough. Certification in other sectors (including FSC) has also faced similar problems (Greenpeace left the FSC this year).

So, the RSPO has certainly not been free of the criticisms that you raise and they are legitimate concerns.

Now, the good: there are several reasons why RSPO certification is still a valuable tool for addressing deforestation in the palm oil sector. These take a little unpacking:

  • The RSPO is a multistakeholder organisation including NGOs like WWF, WRI and ZSL. Although numerically outnumbered, these NGOs can and do push the environmental agenda within the RSPO.
  • External pressure on the RSPO, including NGO campaigns against RSPO member companies, has driven up the stringency of the standard. The standard is currently under revision and it is set to become a truly ‘no deforestation’ standard for the first time later this year. This improvement is in part due to pressure from external organisations.
  • The RSPO certification audit process is overseen by an independent third party. The conservation parts of the RSPO audit process (High Conservation Value assessments) are also overseen by a different independent third party.
  • Companies cannot ‘veto’ regulations they don’t like - instead, the RSPO standard is developed through a consensus-building consultation process before being put to a vote.
  • By bringing stakeholders of widely different types and objectives together, the RSPO provides a platform for collaboration. This is important for addressing complex problems like deforestation, which no single organisation could ever solve on its own. The downside is this does mean relying on consensus-building, which can be a slow process and may be hampered by conflicting interests (e.g., commercial interests).

These steps help mitigate the “fox in the henhouse” problem. That being said, certification schemes like the RSPO and FSC cannot solve the deforestation problem on their own. They have their limits, as recent research has found.

In summary

Certification schemes like the RSPO (and, for that matter, FSC) are imperfect - they have their limitations - but they are still really important. The key point is they are just one of the mechanisms that can be used to address deforestation. To truly stop deforestation, a combination of mechanisms is needed, including (but not limited to) effective government regulation and law enforcement. What mix of mechanisms is best to tackle deforestation in a given set of circumstances is still unknown - and this is one of the things our research is looking at.

It’s important to note that certification also remains useful for consumers looking to support conservation by buying sustainable palm oil, and thereby supporting sustainable production.

On zero-deforestation commitments:

Zero-deforestation commitments by individual companies definitely require auditing by independent third parties to ensure they are being implemented - otherwise it really will be a case of the fox guarding the henhouse! Monitoring implementation is a tough task. Initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Supply-Change.org, ZSL’s SPOTT tool and WRI’s Global Forest Watch are all third-party, NGO-led efforts to monitor commitment implementation. Some groups like the Tropical Forest Trust (TFT) also do auditing for companies’ zero-deforestation commitments.

JoolesBH123 karma

What can we do, or look out for, as consumers, to influence - if we can - positive developments regarding deforestation due to palm oil?

ImperialCollege130 karma

Good question. It's quite hard as a consumer to take action on deforestation - it can seem like a really remote problem, really far away - but there are some useful things you can do.

Something that’s really important is to buy sustainably-produced palm oil. The reason this is important is that it’s vital that palm oil producers get an incentive to produce palm oil sustainably - and so have a reason to avoid clearing forests. Getting certified for sustainable production is expensive and palm oil profit margins are slim, so it’s important that producers who avoid deforestation have a market for their products. There are huge markets for palm oil in China and India which make no demands for sustainability, and if no-one buys sustainable or deforestation-free oil, producers can always just sell their oil there.

How can you make sure you're buying sustainable palm oil? You can check which companies (retailers, consumer goods manufacturers) use sustainable palm oil by having a Google search for their name + ‘palm oil’, or check the sustainability sections of their websites.

Secondly, you could look into the websites of some of the retailers and manufacturers of your favourite or most-used goods - chocolate, cakes, biscuits, shampoo, cosmetics - and check what the companies’ sustainability policies are. Do they have a zero-deforestation commitment? Are they members of the RSPO? Do they have a commitment to protecting High Conservation Value (HCV) areas and High Carbon Stock forests (HCS is a standard for ensuring all forests are protected)? If yes - great. If not, you could write to them and put pressure on them to reform their practices. Most companies are really responsive to customer feedback like this. Check out their websites first, as most of the big companies publish lots of sustainability info there.

Finally, lots of the NGOs that work on deforestation and palm oil - like WWF, Greenpeace, Conservation International, to name a few - may be doing work on deforestation that you could get involved with as a volunteer. Check out their websites - this might give you a way of getting involved more actively, beyond just using your purchasing power as a consumer.

drfeelokay71 karma

Hey Professor,

Pretend you're evil for a second. All you want is the best freaking oil you can get, morality be damned. Whale or palm?

ImperialCollege3 karma

Neither of us are Professors - maybe we could ask one for you… But the two aren’t really comparable anyway, are they?

technojesus5K37 karma

Would it be better if manufacturers just replace palm oil with something else? Is this possible without drastically changing the product?

ImperialCollege1 karma

In short, no.

Palm oil is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop. Per hectare of oil palm trees (an area the size of a football pitch), you can get somewhere around 6-10 times more vegetable oil than from the equivalent area of corn, rapeseed, soy, canola, olives or coconut.

If palm oil was to be replaced with another vegetable oil, you would need far more land. This would put even more pressure on forests and other natural habitats.

Palm oil appears in thousands of everyday products, from cakes to cookies to ice cream, from shampoo to lipstick. It would be really difficult to replace palm oil with another vegetable oil without putting even more pressure on the natural environment. Even if a synthetic replacement for palm oil were to be found, we’re not sure this wouldn’t have a higher environmental cost than palm oil due to the need for land for the production plants, not to mention feedstock inputs, and so on.

wenchette18 karma

Are there other products besides palm oil that have caused significant deforestation?

ImperialCollege64 karma

Hi! Yes - loads. There are five ‘forest risk’ commodities (see Supply-Change.org) - these are soy and beef (mainly in the Amazon), palm oil (mainly Southeast Asia) and timber and pulp and paper (everywhere). Coffee, cocoa (chocolate) are problems in West Africa and sugar in Latin America and India, as well as Southeast Asia. Subsistence agriculture is also a major problem (e.g., slash-and-burn agriculture) in South America, Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Palm oil is actually only the third-leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia, after plantation forestry (fibre/pulp) and logging.

wenchette13 karma

Is anyone doing any sort of public awareness campaign, in association with "good guy" companies, to develop a common logo to mark products from manufacturers that have embraced the "no deforestation" goal? (Something like gem retailers use to indicate no blood diamonds or cosmetic producers use to indicate no animal testing.)

ImperialCollege28 karma

There is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo. This appears on products like Whole Earth peanut butter, which you’ll see in the supermarket.

There are a couple of problems with this, though - as always with palm oil and deforestation, it’s a complex picture!

The first problem is that lots of retailers and consumer goods companies don’t like to use the RSPO logo because their products are already covered in lots of different logos, and there is a fear that adding another logo will be confusing or customers won’t pay any attention to it. Lots of the big consumer goods manufacturers and retailers like Tescos, Unilever etc. use RSPO-certified palm oil, but don’t always put the logo on their products.

A second problem is that RSPO isn't (currently) a ‘no deforestation’ standard. 'No deforestation' is quite a challenging concept. How many trees count as a forest? Do weed trees growing on previously cleared land count as a forest? Do badly damaged forests with little remaining biodiversity count? Up until now RSPO certification has protected ‘high conservation value’ areas rather than all forests. This means it hasn’t been a truly ‘no deforestation’ standard and a ‘deforestation free’ logo hasn’t been possible. The standard is being updated this year, though, and the current proposal is that a ‘no deforestation’ criterion will be incorporated. This may help with a ‘no deforestation’ label.

Most public awareness campaigns about palm oil have drawn attention to the problems with it - Greenpeace’s new ‘Rangtan’ campaign / video (launched yesterday) is a good example. These have been really important for driving change in the industry, but I guess the flipside of this is that ‘good guy’ public awareness campaigns aren’t so attention-grabbing.


Is palm oil preferable commercially due solely to its shelf life?

ImperialCollege1 karma

No. Palm oil has a high melting point and it is highly versatile, but it is also commercially preferable to other vegetable oils because the yields from oil palm trees are so high. Palm oil yields are 6-10 times higher than any other vegetable oil crop, such as soy, corn, canola or rapeseed. This means palm oil is relatively cheap to produce and use.

So shelf-life isn’t the only factor - cost and versatility also matter to producers and users of palm oil.

2005_joakim15 karma

Do you feel like there will be a way to completely stop companies from deforestation?

ImperialCollege33 karma

Thanks for your question.

Yes, but it’s a complex challenge.

Companies involved in the production, trade and use of palm oil have a mixed record regarding eliminating deforestation from their operations. Historically, industrial-scale palm oil production has been responsible for extensive deforestation in the tropics and this is well-documented.

Over the past 10 years, however, some of the big palm oil companies have made good progress in addressing deforestation in their operations and supply chains. The problem is that guaranteeing that palm oil is ‘deforestation free’ is incredibly difficult. Palm oil supply chains are really complex - meaning there are lots of different companies and traders involved in getting palm oil from the trader to the shop floor, and palm oil gets mixed, refined, fractionated, remixed and so on.

This means it’s hard to be completely certain that a supplier somewhere in the supply chain hasn’t engaged in deforestation. The picture gets even more complex when you consider that about 40% of palm oil production is accounted for by smallholders - of which there are tens of thousands in the supply chain. Add to this the fact that there is confusion over what even counts as ‘forest’ and ‘deforestation’, with conflicting regulations from governments about development and conservation, and the situation becomes a complete mess.

Certification can help with this, as it can be used to track palm oil consignments through the supply chain. The RSPO certification standard is being updated this year and will include - for the first time - a criterion for 'no deforestation'. This should help. Other useful initiatives include a project called Trase, which is using customs data to map global palm oil supply chains. Lots of companies have also put a lot of effort into tracing and disclosing their palm oil suppliers and sources - for example, Unilever published all of their suppliers and supplying mills earlier this year. But there is still a long way to go, and traceability and transparency are not the same thing as sustainability; there's no point simply knowing where your palm oil came from, you need to take active steps to stop deforestation where you find it, too!

So to sum up, yes, I think it will be possible for palm oil companies to avoid deforestation in their operations and some progress has been made on this. But it’s an incredibly difficult challenge and we aren’t there yet. There is still more some companies with zero-deforestation commitments need to do, and there are still other companies with no commitments that continue to clear forests.

There will also always be a tension between the need to conserve forests and the perceived need to grow economies in developing countries - which will put pressure on forests for agricultural development, whether for palm oil or other crops.

Tommelot11 karma

Next to a zero-deforestation policy, are there other initiatives to reduce the negative effects of palm oil extraction?

ImperialCollege17 karma

Thanks for your question Tommelot.

In short - yes! Zero-deforestation commitments (policies) are just one type of initiative used - primarily by companies in the private sector - to address deforestation caused by palm oil. A zero-deforestation commitment tends to consist of a policy setting out how a company intends to address deforestation in its operations. This could include avoiding the destruction of ‘high conservation value’ areas and/or ‘high carbon stock’ forests.

Other initiatives used by the private sector include ‘commodity roundtables’, which are groups of different stakeholders that come together to work on addressing deforestation. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which provides certification for sustainably-produced palm oil products, is an example of one of these roundtables. You might have seen an RSPO label on some of the products you buy in the supermarket, like peanut butter.

There are also public-private partnerships between companies, non-government organisations (NGOs) and governments like the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020. This is a multistakeholder initiative which brings stakeholders from each sector together to address deforestation in a collaborative way. There are also collaborative partnerships between small groups of companies, like the SPOTS initiative by L’Oreal, Clariant, Wilmar and others.

Other sectors (namely, civil society and governments) are also pursuing initiatives to reduce deforestation caused by palm oil production. These include moratoria on issuing new licences for palm oil plantations (e.g., in Indonesia), protected areas, emissions trading schemes (including the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD+ scheme), and a number of other mechanisms. For a long time, NGOs have been waging public-awareness campaigns against companies found to be clearing forests. NGOs also collaborate with companies that show a willingness to reform, to help them improve their practices.

Palm oil production is often just one of a range of pressures on forests in a given landscape - there are also usually pressures from other crops as well as plantation forestry, mining, subsistence agriculture, hunting, etc. The specific context of deforestation is almost always highly complex. This means that to address deforestation successfully, it’s important that combinations of mechanisms are used, rather than just single mechanisms on their own (like zero-deforestation commitments).