Positive impact: Why sustainable palm oil could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of COP26 summit

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainable palm oil production could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of commitments made at the COP26 summit. ©Getty Images
Sustainable palm oil production could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of commitments made at the COP26 summit. ©Getty Images

Related tags Palm oil Sustainability

Sustainable palm oil production could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of commitments made at the COP26 summit – but experts who have been assessing the fine print say that the devil lies in the detail of implementation.

COP26 saw over 100 countries committing to the Glasgow Climate Pact, which included pledges against deforestation, reaching carbon neutrality and other initiatives such as supporting smallholder farmers in palm oil producing countries to switch to more sustainable practices.

According to Malaysia Forest Fund CEO Dr Elizabeth Philip, such commitments can positively impact the sustainable palm oil sector as new pledges signed by the Malaysian government regarding methane gas, forest and land use and coal finance are all linked to the palm oil supply chain.

“[Some of these will require the industry] to keep a closer eye on their carbon footprint, meaning a need for more robust accounting, use of traceability technology, and taking care of human rights – [all of which are] part of a sustainable palm oil production system,”​ she said at a recent event held by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

“There are various areas that are involved all along the supply chain from milling to processing, [as well as the] water footprint associated with these; [and] potential mitigation actions such as optimizing inputs and outputs, waste management and reducing water usage should come into play.”

That said, the key for these commitments to actually turning into real, systemic change is for practical support to be rendered to those in the palm oil supply chain making that change, otherwise the pledges – which are actually non-binding, so failure to meet these would not in fact have real consequences – would just remain as commitments on paper.

“The reality of the palm oil supply chain is that [we] need to support smallholder farmers in reaching sustainability [as] they are the ones producing one-third of the world’s palm oil supply,”​ Indonesia Food and Agribusiness Deputy Minister Dr Musdgalifah Machmud said at a COP26 palm oil forum.

“If smallholders are to change their practices [to be more sustainable], then help and support needs to be given to them to maintain their livelihoods whilst practicing sustainable production [or] they would not be able to change.”

This sentiment was echoed by Unilever Director of Sustainable Sourcing Martin Huxtable, who stressed that income is a ‘key driver of farmer and climate resilience’​, calling for government, industry and NGO collaborations to empower this group of palm oil producers to reach sustainable production.

Deforestation fiasco

Despite being designed with the best of intentions, some areas of the Glasgow Climate Pact do appear to have already run into trouble – namely the signing of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration On Forests And Land Use, which included one pledge to halt and reverse land loss and degradation, which would have a major impact on palm oil production.

Within the 141 signatories of this declaration were major palm oil producers such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, which looked like good bodings and a win-win for the palm oil industry and for sustainability - but within a few days of the signing, controversy erupted over the actual items that were agreed to in the declaration.

According to the actual declaration text, countries committed to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030’​ – which countries such as Indonesia agreed to as net zero forest loss, i.e. having steady forest coverage area via regrowing and other initiatives whilst cover might be loss elsewhere.

But according to western media, the signing of this declaration meant on outright commitment to ‘end all deforestation by 2030’​ – which, according to Indonesia especially, was not the agreement at all.

Indonesia Environment and Forests Minister Siti Nurabaya posted a detailed chain of tweets on the situation, stating that: “Indonesia is firm on its commitment to manage [carbon] emissions from the forestry sector and strive towards carbon neutrality by 2030 [but] this should not be interpreted as zero deforestation – this must be understood by all parties for the sake of national interest.

“We cannot completely halt the rapid development of President Jokowi’s era in the name of carbon emissions or deforestation – [doing this would be] in opposition of the 1945 Constitution for values and goals establishment, [which] includes developing national targets for the social and economic prosperity of the people.

“Forcing Indonesia into zero deforestation by 2030 is clearly inaccurate and unfair – every country has its own issues and is governed by its own regulations to protect its citizens. E.g. in Kalimantan and Sumatera we have many roads split due to having to traverse the forest – if zero deforestation is allowed, does this mean no roads can be built? What then happens to the people affected?”

Indonesia has had its share of trouble from western media in the past, and this time it has hit a truly international level. Interestingly, Jokowi’s recent move to revoke some three million hectares of forestry permits went more or less ignored by the same media, drawing criticism from industry experts.

“This move is significant as a huge environmental commitment with some 106 firms having their licences revoked – [yet] this news was essentially ignored by international media and NGOs,”​ consultancy firm Article Three Trade Policy Director Khalil Manaf Hegarty told us.

“[This includes groups such as Greenpeace] that have been quick to comment in the past when looking to undermine the President’s environmental initiatives – despite Indonesia posting its lowest deforestation on record last year.”

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