In the wake of escalating public attention to the impact of palm oil plantations on the environment and global climate, a new report commissioned by signatories to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto attempts to definitively establish what constitutes High Carbon Stock forests and set guidelines for conversion of land to palm plantations in a sustainable manner.

“The study aims to clearly define what constitutes High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest, and establish HCS thresholds that takes into account not only environmental concerns but also socio-economic and political factors in developing and emerging economies,” according to the website of the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM), a group of several major oil palm growers, traders, agribusiness companies and other end users.

Among the most crucial aspects of the HCS Science Study: Draft Synthesis report is the fact that it declines to provide a definition of what constitutes a forest and does not seek to stop all deforestation, per se, but instead relies entirely on ecosystem carbon content as the metric by which sustainability is to be measured, setting an aboveground carbon stock threshold of 25 to 75 tC/ha as acceptable for “carbon neutral” land conversion.

Among the companies that have signed on to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto are Asian Agri, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group, and Sime Darby Plantation, which collectively produce nearly a tenth of the world’s palm oil. Other signatories include global palm oil trader Apical and agribusiness giant Cargill.

Environmentalists reacted with near universal criticism to the proposals put forward in the draft HCS Science Study released by SPOM last week, saying they would lead to more conversion of forests and peatland for palm oil — the direct opposite of the sustainable, deforestation-free production methods consumers are explicitly calling for.

SPOM’s HCS Study versus the HCS Approach

For one thing, critics say, the SPOM study ignores the High Carbon Stock Approach, first developed in 2010, which has broad support from a variety of businesses, NGOs, and technical experts. SPOM’s HCS Study would allow for much more clearing of forests than the HCS Approach, environmentalists say.

The major point of contention is a class of forests known as “young regenerating forest,” which are generally considered to have about 25 to 75tC/ha of aboveground biomass. These forests are protected under the HCS Approach, but would be available for clearing under the 75 tC/ha threshold proposed by the SPOM study, according to Calen May-Tobin, a policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative.

“In attempting to reinvent the HCS wheel, the SPOM study falls far short of meeting consumer demands,” May-Tobin wrote in a blog post.

Major consumer companies like Colgate-Palmolive, Dunkin’ Brands, and Nestlé, plus traders representing over half of the global palm oil trade, including Cargill and Wilmar International, have already agreed to follow the HCS Approach, May-Tobin noted. Some companies that have announced their support for the HCS Approach, such as Cargill and Musim Mas, are also signatories to SPOM, which means they will have to decide which method to adhere to.

Petra Meekers, director of corporate social responsibility and sustainable development at Musim Mas, told Mongabay that while his company is a member of both the HCS Approach and SPOM, it is “actively involved in looking at the development of an HCS methodology which will set one clear set of rules for implementation of companies’ commitments to ‘No Deforestation.’”

Meekers said that the HCS Approach and the HCS Science Study are convergent in many respects. Both the HCS Approach and the HCS Study support the protection of primary forests, forests subjected to moderate levels of logging disturbance and older secondary forests, and agree that low-carbon scrub landscapes and open land should be priorities for any proposed development.

He allowed that the two methodologies have different approaches in relation to the “No Deforestation” principle, citing the example of how each would treat young regenerating forests. But both apply FPIC, community land use mapping and the Forest Stewardship Council’s High Conservation Value criteria, he said. Meekers did not say which methodology Musim Mas would ultimately adhere to.

Peatlands and the HCS Study

In addition to forests, conversion of peatland for oil palm plantations is another major test case for environmentalists, and again the SPOM study was found lacking.

Most peat would be protected under the method laid out by the SPOM study, according to the UCS’s May-Tobin, but the study itself says it would allow for “conversion of small patches [less than 20 hectare, or about 50 acres] of already cleared and drained peat land that can lead to a lowering of otherwise existing very high emissions from biological oxidation of peat and recurrent fires.”

May-Tobin says that even small amounts of drained peatland can still produce greenhouse gas emissions, adding that recent research found emissions from plantations established on peat range between 18 and 22 tC/ha per year.

Meaning, in other words, that the HCS Science Study falls short of its own carbon neutrality objective. “Over a 25-year plantation cycle that would be between 450 and 550 tC/ha emitted. That’s a lot of emissions and WELL above the study’s threshold of 75 t C/ha,” May-Tobin wrote in the blog post.

Charlotte Opal of The Forest Trust said that SPOM’s work on soil carbon calculations and mapping is a welcome addition to the debate on how best to protect forests and peatlands while allowing for emerging economies to develop their resources, but that the carbon neutral approach will meet several challenges in implementation.

In order to achieve carbon neutrality, the HCS Science Study would allow for companies to set aside forests as protected in order to offset the emissions from their operations.

“It will be difficult to ensure that the offset forests will be effectively protected,” Opal told Mongabay. “There are legal challenges to companies wishing to set aside areas even within their own concessions. How can companies protect forests which they do not even nominally control? How much will it cost them? How can they prevent encroachment?”

Furthermore, Opal wonder how companies will prove the “additionality” of the offset protected forest — or, in other words, how they will prove that the protected forest actually offers additional carbon savings above and beyond those that could have been expected anyway. “How can we say that the new protected areas are ‘additional’ to what would have happened in the absence of the palm oil project?” she asks.

According to Gemma Tillack of the Rainforest Action Network, the HCS Approach is a valuable tool that “provides a practical and credible way to identify forest areas that merit protection and procedures to follow that ensure communities can give or withhold Free, Prior and Informed Consent to any development on their traditional lands.”

Business as usual is no longer an option for the palm oil industry, she says, given “the dark legacy of human and labor rights abuses in the sector and the scale of the climate, biodiversity crisis we face.” But continuing business as usual is exactly what the proposals in the SPOM study would do, she argued.

Tillack told Mongabay, “If implemented the recommendations outlined in this draft report, will hinder, not help, efforts to halt deforestation and will not meet the expectations of a growing number of consumers who refuse to buy products that are driving the destruction of the world’s last forests.”

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