Palm oil poses huge environmental threat

Palm oil is a key ingredient in a great many of the products we use every day, from ice cream to shampoo, but the source of that oil is causing major environmental damage, according to organisations like Greenpeace and WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

In last week’s annual meeting of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, that organisation reported both a substantial increase in the use of palm oil and a failure on the part of many of the companies using it to reach acceptable standards of sustainability.

The report focused on companies in Japan, Australia and Europe that are the biggest consumers of palm oil; it said that while some companies are ‘doing better’, many are taking no measures at all to meet standards set by the RSPO.  The Roundtable is made up of stakeholders, from growers and retailers to banks and environmental groups.  It was launched in 2004 to address the problem of environmental impact, chiefly the destruction of rainforests such as those in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm trees thrive only in tropical climates, so the increasing demand for the derivative product has meant more and more palm plantations have been created, in most cases by clearing existing tropical rainforests.  Not only has this destroyed the natural habitat of already endangered wildlife such as tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans, it has also added considerably to the greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.

Rainforests tend to grow in peatland, which stores more carbon than any other ecosystem on the planet.   WWF reported that the burning off of existing vegetation to make room for palm plantations may have contributed up to 40% of the entire global CO2 emissions in 2009.  To make matters worse, there are cases where local communities of forest dwelling humans have been forced off their land by palm-oil hungry producers.

According to the report, about 10% or over 5 million tonnes of the world’s palm oil production in 2011 was certified to RSPO standards, but only half of it was purchased.  Criteria to meet those standards includes a commitment to purchase only from sustainable sources, and only a few of the members surveyed came up with high marks.

In the UK, Waitrose, Cadbury and Boots were among the companies showing an improvement, but there is still a large discrepancy between sustainable goals and the actuality.  The global consumption of palm oil is increasing; WWF estimates it will grow from around 50 million tonnes as of 2011 to half again that much by 2050.  There are no published estimates as to how much rainforest will be left by then if current practices are not corrected.

WWF suggests that what could help is a programme of financial incentives for growers, investors and consumers.  That might include schemes that encourage investment in sustainable palm oil production by banks and other investors.  Palm oil plantations require capital, and if investors offer financial support only to well-run, sustainable operations that meet certain standards, the situation may improve.  Buyers could be given similar incentives to encourage purchases from certified producers only.