How RSPO certification meets market demand for sustainable palm oil

Daemeter Consulting co-founder Gary Paoli evaluates the RSPO's certification scheme to assess how effectively it safeguards environmental and social concerns including deforestation, emissions, and human rights.

Consumer demands for sustainability in palm oil have shifted markedly in the past year towards concern over deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and certification schemes are often criticized as weak on these issues. Our recent research shows that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s leading certification system for palm oil produced in accordance with principles of sustainability, has criteria in place to address these issues, and holds potential to mitigate impacts significantly if implementing procedures can be strengthened.

Daemeter Consulting 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, such as respect for human rights and benefits sharing, are also highlighted, alongside concerns about certification processes and traceability. We then researched how the 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. These six leading issues included deforestation, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, biodiversity, rights of Indigenous Peoples, benefit sharing and respect for human rights.

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. Our research highlights, however, that inconsistencies in how HCV is applied – a cornerstone of RSPO’s approach to limit deforestation - compromise effectiveness and must be addressed.

RSPO’s approach to addressing GHG emissions is broad-based and lays groundwork for future emission reductions and transparent reporting. However, it scores variably across criteria, with potential for inconsistent application due to lack of emissions cut-offs, and a need to accelerate transparency and widen participation. On mitigation of biodiversity impacts, RSPO scores well against most criteria, but the need for strengthening HCV is again highlighted, together with integrating HCV and emerging High Carbon Stock (HCS) mapping as a combined assessment tool.

On social issues, traditionally a major concern surrounding oil palm development, RSPO scores moderate to high for provisions to safeguard rights of Indigenous People, respect for human rights, and promote benefit sharing with local stakeholders. Still, attention is 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 little empirical data is available on the success of RSPO’s approach on the ground. This highlights an urgent need for research to quantify how adherence to RSPO standards reduces impacts beyond that of other approaches, such as legal compliance, and to disseminate these findings to the general public.

Consensus as a strength and a weakness

Certification is sometimes criticized for promoting mitigation rather than elimination of negative impacts of palm oil agriculture as a transitional way forward. While clearly there is room and need for the improvement of standards, certification schemes such as RSPO play a key role in ensuring the implementation of uniform, comparable standards of sustainable and responsible practice across diverse geographies and actors in the industry.

RSPO’s multi-stakeholder, consensus-based approach has 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 the palm oil industry. Certification is sometimes criticized for promoting mitigation rather than elimination of negative impacts of palm oil agriculture as a transitional way forward. While clearly there is room and need for the improvement of standards, certification schemes such as RSPO play a key role in ensuring the implementation of uniform, comparable standards of sustainable and responsible practice across diverse geographies and actors in the industry.

Transformation will take time, and steps to accelerate this are needed. But change that is 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.

Based on our research, we recommend the RSPO and its members consider the following concrete actions to strengthen effectiveness of RSPO certification to mitigate impacts on key environmental and social issues:

Tighten Requirements for GHG Emissions Reductions. RSPO does not set emission standards for members, but requires them to measure and minimize 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 the 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 effectiveness to date, RSPO should commission an independent study of how social and environmental impacts on the ground are mitigated in certified plantations. Such a study would highlight where improvements are needed, and provide a basis for ongoing monitoring of effectiveness over time.

Gary Paoli is co-founder and Director of Business and Research Development at Daemeter Consulting. Download Leading Demands for Sustainability in the Marketplace and RSPO’s Response here or read it online here.

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