Consumer demands for sustainability in palm oil have shifted markedly in the past year towards concern over deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with certification schemes often criticised as weak on these issues.
Our recent review shows that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifying system has criteria in place to address these issues, with potential to mitigate impacts significantly if implementing procedures can be strengthened.
We surveyed 268 articles published in the past year in eight leading online media, and found that public attention is directed primarily towards forest-related impacts of plantations.
Social issues, including indigenous people and human rights, are also highlighted, alongside certification processes and traceability. We then researched how RSPO addresses the six most widely covered social and environmental impacts of palm oil and scored the approach against criteria derived from the Principles for Credible Certification defined by ISEAL, the alliance for sustainability standards.
Deforestation tops the list as the most widely covered issue, mentioned in more than half of all articles. RSPO’s measures to address deforestation include bans on converting primary forests, any customary forests without consent of local communities, and any secondary (logged) forest required to maintain one or more high-conservation value (HCV) together with any area that is legally protected.
We highlight, however, that inconsistencies in how HCV is applied¾a cornerstone of RSPO’s approach to limit deforestation¾compromise effectiveness and merit attention.
RSPO’s approach to addressing GHG emissions is broad based and lays groundwork for future emission reductions and transparent reporting. However, it scored variably across criteria, with potential for inconsistent application, lack of agreed upon emissions cut-offs, and a need to accelerate transparency and widen participation.
On mitigation of biodiversity impacts, RSPO scored well against most criteria, but the need for strengthening HCV was again highlighted, together with combining HCV and emerging high-carbon stock (HCS) mapping as a combined tool.
On social issues, traditionally a major concern surrounding oil palm development, RSPO scored moderate to high for provisions to safeguard indigenous people, respect for human rights, and promote benefit sharing with local stakeholders.
Still, attention was drawn to the need for strengthening implementation and broader multi-stakeholder efforts to ensure compliance across widely dispersed, culturally diverse geographies.
One crosscutting finding applicable to all impacts reviewed is that few empirical data are available on the success of RSPO’s approach on the ground. This shows an urgent need for research to quantify how adherence to RSPO standards reduces impacts beyond that of other approaches, such as legal compliance, and disseminate these findings to the general public.
Consensus as a strength and a weakness
RSPO’s multi-stakeholder, consensus-based approach are hallmarks that have allowed it to become the most widely adopted palm oil certification scheme, but the approach also limits how “high” performance standards can be set while still maintaining consensus.
As such, RSPO, like all consensus-based systems, delivers incremental progress rather than dramatic change, which can create gaps between the demands of progressive stakeholders and standards required by RSPO.
Such gaps have led some to question the role of certification in transforming industry. Certification is sometimes criticised for promoting mitigation rather than elimination of impacts as a transitional way forward.
While clearly there is room and need for an improvement of standards, certification schemes such as RSPO play a key role in ensuring implementation of uniform, comparable standards of practice across diverse geographies and actors in the industry.
Transformation will take time, and steps to accelerate this are needed, but change that's supported by a broad stakeholder base carries the advantage that once new requirements are introduced, they define the "new norm" and members will implement them.
Actions to improve RSPO’s effectiveness
Based on our research, we recommend RSPO and its supporters consider the following concrete actions to strengthen systems for mitigating impacts on key issues:
Tighten requirements for GHG emissions reductions. RSPO does not set emission standards, but requires members to measure and minimise net GHG from operations through eliminating burning and avoiding extensive planting on peat and HCS areas. RSPO also encourages members to develop emission reduction plans and implement best management practices, as well as to report annual emissions to RSPO for the present, and after 2016 to the public. These steps lay the groundwork for future emission reductions, but effectiveness of the approach will likely be questioned until agreed-upon emission thresholds are in place.
Improve biodiversity and carbon stock assessment. Credible HCV assessment is the cornerstone of RSPO’s approach to limiting deforestation to areas of low biodiversity and low carbon, but the quality of HCV assessment has been highly variable. Quality control of these assessments should be improved and integration with HCS assessment should be pursued. RSPO is currently working with the HCV Resource Network to strengthen HCV through independent systems for licensing of assessors, quality monitoring and improved transparency.
Document certification effectiveness and impact. To provide a baseline measure of RSPO impacts to date, RSPO could commission independent study of its impacts in certified plantations. Such a study would highlight where improvements are needed, and provide a basis for ongoing monitoring of effectiveness over time.