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Oil Palm Plantations

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of oil palm plantations on world-wide climate and on the existence of indigenous animal species.

My Lords, I tabled this Question because I want to know the Government’s assessment of the current extent of tropical rainforest destruction. I have sought information about this in the past and I would be grateful if the Minister could bring the facts up to date in her reply. Allied to that is the very real problem of oil palm plantations. So many of these massive plantations grow in areas that were once thriving, multispecies forests. What is the Government’s view on palm oil? What action are they taking to alert producers, manufacturers and consumers to the damaging impact that these plantations have on both our climate and the abundant life that used to thrive in the former forest environment?

Over recent years, there have been a number of attempts to get international agreement on how to regulate and control the logging of rainforests. As a result of these various meetings, there must now surely be greater understanding of how vital to our survival these forests are. Yet the destruction continues. Just a few weeks ago, the Guardian reported that companies are planning to clear more than 23,000 hectares of primary rainforest in the northern Amazon region of Peru. In total, as many as 1.5 million hectares have been identified as forest areas suitable for exploitation. Palm oil is now seen as one of the biggest threats to the Peruvian Amazon and is also now threatening the security of the great tropical forests in Gabon and the Congo basin region. Sound land management laws and plans are urgently needed to stop the indiscriminate felling of these forests.

It almost beggars belief, when so much is known about the value of rainforests, that Governments can still connive in their destruction. I am well aware that important meetings are to take place in coming months in this connection. The UN Secretary-General is personally giving huge emphasis to the need for concerted action on sustainable development goals. There is going to be a meeting in New York in September, and I very much hope that our Prime Minister will be present and participate in it. There will also be the vital intergovernmental climate change negotiations in Paris in December, at which I hope the future of the world’s tropical forests takes centre stage. That meeting must, this time, herald real action.

In the few moments left to me, I will focus on the spread of oil palm plantations and the devastating impact that it can have on human, plant and animal life. Palm oil is now found in 50% to 60% of all packaged foods, and the demand for it has been growing rapidly. According to one source, when compared with the level of demand in 2000, consumption of palm oil is predicted to double by 2030 and to triple by 2050.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the countries principally engaged in the conversion of rainforest to oil palms. They account for something like 86% of global palm oil production. When natural forests and peat-lands, which store very large stocks of carbon, are converted to oil palm plantations, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and that has a serious effect on climatic conditions. The logging and burning also destroy the homes and habitat of forest-dwelling people and wildlife. Most people would, I am sure, be horrified to learn that as consumers of products containing palm oil we are engaging in the slaughter of a long list of plant, insect and animal life.

A major tragedy is the destruction of so much of the primary forest cover in Borneo and Sumatra. Some 300,000 different animal species are affected as a result. The Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros, the sun bear and pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard and proboscis monkey are all threatened. The Sumatran tiger could become extinct in three years. Perhaps the most iconic creature of all is the orangutan. These wonderful, intelligent and sensitive animals share 97% of their DNA with humans. They play a vital role in maintaining the health of the forest ecosystem. In two decades, at least 50,000 of these animals have died as a direct result of forest clearance in response to the growing demand for palm oil. Orangutans are being mercilessly killed and their young captured and sold as pets for human entertainment. Unless something is done now, they could become extinct in the wild in five to 10 years.

So what is to be done to stop this slaughter and desecration? There are steps that can be taken, but they need to be driven by determined political will. First, of course, we must engage with the Governments of the producer countries. We have to accept that the production of palm oil is increasingly important to their economies. To what extent is international financial support being provided under the auspices of the REDD+ scheme? Who is monitoring and checking what happens to the funds being distributed?

Most urgently, there should be an immediate halt to the development of oil palm plantations on peat-land. This usually involves burning and results in substantial greenhouse gas emissions. It is also important that there is active shareholder and customer pressure on companies using palm oil to be open about what they are doing. Transparency is essential. Referring to “vegetable oil” on the label is simply not good enough. If manufacturers use palm oil, that should be declared. Consumers could then make an informed choice about whether to continue using the product.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil offers some hope of international action. Founded in 2004 and now widely supported, one of its targets is to ensure that all palm oil used in the UK comes from sustainable sources by the end of this year. However, we have to recognise that acquiring certificates of sustainability could very likely involve the clearance of secondary or degraded forest land. Partially logged primary forest can sometimes be retrieved and restored for the benefit of wildlife and humans. There are in fact loopholes, quickly exploited by the unscrupulous. We need to be more precise, for example, in the definitions of tropical rainforests the better to guarantee their protection.

To sum up, the logging of rainforests is a real threat to the survival of life on this planet. To go on conspiring in their destruction is selfish, senseless stupidity. We must wake up to our own responsibilities for what is happening. Great forests are being felled; whole populations of forest-dwelling people are being cast aside; thousands of mammals, birds, insects and plants are being crushed; and our climate is being polluted and changed—all this so that we can enjoy palm oil in products such as crackers, crisps, cream cheese and chocolate. It really is madness. It has to be stopped and stopped now before it is too late.

My Lords, in view of government targets for this year, my noble friend Lord Eden is timely in his introduction of this debate. We will all be very grateful to him.

I should like to make a few brief points: on our further actions to achieve the objective that total United Kingdom consumption should come from sustainable resources, on how we monitor these endeavours, on the persuasion of our European partners, and on concerted action internationally.

Recent evidence is certainly encouraging. In 2013 we learn that between 55% and 71% of United Kingdom palm oil products were passed by the body that analyses and certifies derivations, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Many United Kingdom business consumers are thus supportive. These include a high proportion of processors, manufacturers and distributors. Nevertheless, another not insignificant proportion while co-operative remains less than committed. What plans are there to increase commitment, not least that of those now designated for targeting, including small and medium-sized enterprises and the hospital sector?

Can the Minister also say which incentives the Government intend to offer and to what extent mandatory European Union requirements within the renewable energy directive will be implemented?

For the proper monitoring of progress, one continuing problem may be the technical difficulty of segregating and recording quantities that are genuinely those of sustainable palm oil. In view of this, how far does my noble friend consider that the current arrangements for analysis and monitoring should be adapted to achieve greater accuracy and transparency?

On European solidarity, a number of states are as concerned as we are, particularly the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, while in any case the renewable energy directive obliges all EU members to implement its standards.

However, several other interventions could strengthen both European and international resolve. On this issue there is a case for European states to come together, either formally or informally, whether in small or larger groupings. The United Kingdom might take a lead in that. All the more so would such an initiative serve to persuade European consumers to use sustainable palm oil. If that is worth entertaining in Europe, not least is it also worth considering internationally by forming working groups of states to promote the same purpose. Might the Government, therefore, facilitate such projects, both within and outside Europe?

Then there is the potential impact of Europe’s own good practice upon states elsewhere and its encouragement only to use sustainable resources. This goal is well supported by the EU’s membership, as it is by the Council of Europe’s affiliation of 47 states. Can my noble friend say what plans there may be to deploy European influence accordingly?

So far there is cause to take heart. We can be proud of our own results. Elsewhere, there is evidence of willingness to match these. Yet, as my noble friend Lord Eden reminded us, to the detriment of animals and the environment, far too much unnecessary destruction of the rain forests still occurs. Nationally and internationally, to attain a 100% use of sustainable resources a great deal still has to be done and attention given to combined and co-operative measures to raise commitment.

My Lords, I should like to speak briefly in the gap for two reasons. The first is to endorse most wholeheartedly the powerful, persuasive and utterly convincing speech of my noble friend Lord Eden. He spoke with a controlled passion and a deep knowledge that ought to have a wider audience. I hope that his speech will be drawn to the attention of many people, because he has highlighted a real global threat. When he talked about the possible impending extinction of species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, there can be no one who would not be extremely concerned and moved by what he said.

However, I speak for one other reason. Noble Lords who have looked at the green pages may have seen that there is a list headed, “Forthcoming retirements”. Although we did not have a valedictory speech—it would be marvellous if we had one during the Queen’s Speech, although none of us knows quite when that is going to happen—we now know that my noble friend Lord Eden is going on 11 June. So if by chance this should indeed prove to be his last speech in your Lordships’ House, and it will certainly be his last QSD, I think he deserves the thanks and approbation of us all, not only for what he has said this evening and for the manner in which he is preparing to depart this House but for what he has done over so many years.

I have many fond memories of my noble friend, the first of which dates back to 1970 when I, as the young Member of Parliament for Cannock, and he, I think, as the Minister of State for Industry at the time, invited him to come to Cannock. Together we donned our miners’ uniforms, put on our helmets and went down the Littleton Colliery. From that moment on, I always looked upon my noble friend as a good sport and a Minister who was determined to understand the areas for which he was responsible. He has shown noble Lords tonight that although he may have aged—it is not very noticeable, because he looks much the same as he did all those years ago—he has not lost the spark of youth, the determination to tackle important issues, and the ability to draw the attention of your Lordships’ House to their importance.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for a very eloquent tribute to the wonderful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Eden. Perhaps we ought to start a tradition where provision is made for a valedictory QSD on retirement so that we can discuss topics of great importance. The House has benefited greatly from the distinguished and long career of the noble Lord, Lord Eden, and the passions that he has sustained throughout his time in this place, including his interest in the Rainforest Alliance and the Jane Goodall Institute. It is clear that this is a subject which is dear to his heart and I am grateful to him for his speech. It has given us a comprehensive overview of many of the issues associated with the destruction of rainforests arising from our use of palm oil.

It is obviously true that palm oil is now almost ubiquitous in many of our packaged foods. The statistic is often quoted that 50% of supermarket products contain palm oil. Over the years the profile of this issue has risen and there has been increasing pressure on the supply chain to become more sustainable and to reduce its impact. Indeed, the UK among other countries has signed up to a target of using 100% sustainable palm oil by this year. So my first question for the Minister echoes one that has already been posed by the noble Lord, Lord Eden: how are we doing on that target? Will we reach 100% by the end of this year? It seems that we are making progress because the noble Lord talked about that, as did the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in relation to the percentage that might be deemed sustainable. However, how we are going to reach the 100% target is the question.

Underlying that is the thorny question of how to prove that the certification process is robust. Since 2004 we have approached this issue on the basis of self-regulation. An NGO-led initiative created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil production. It is a multi-stakeholder process which seems to have had some success, but the very organisation which formed it, the WWF, stated recently that it is in need of fundamental reform. There are still concerns about whether the certification process is robust enough. Those concerns include the continuing threat of deforestation and logging, the planting of plantations on peat land, the fear that forest fires are being used to clear land which is subsequently planted, the use of pesticides and, indeed, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the intensive agricultural practices used on palm oil plantations. We rely on this certification process, yet there is a fear that it is not robust. We ought to remember that the process is only certifying roughly 18% of global production of palm oil. What of the other 82%?

It is difficult to find the right adjective, but my fear is that the process is not rigorous enough and is self-policing in a way that means it is not being done with enough due diligence and seriousness.

I looked into the RSPO a bit further, as I was interested in the membership of the round table—who the governors are and who sits on the board. It seems to me that the board is predominantly made up of people with vested interests. The largest number of seats goes to the oil palm growers, followed by the palm oil processors, the consumer goods manufacturers and the bankers—that is pretty much everyone, bar two environmental conservation NGOs and two social development NGOs. What seems to be missing is any representation from the scientific community. Indeed, where are the Governments in this?

I am an old-fashioned environmental campaigner and I believe in regulation. I think that we can pursue these issues through voluntarism and encouragement of labelling, but ultimately, if we are serious about avoiding deforestation, there has to be a UN-based international approach to this. We are entering a period where we are gaining ways to gather and process information about our globe and the planet we inhabit. We now know more, more quickly, about what is happening on the planet that we all share. I would have thought, given modern surveillance and everything that we can do with satellite monitoring, there ought to be a more considered approach from the UN as to how we manage the lungs, essentially, of the planet—the forests that keep our planet rich in biodiversity and provide such vital climatic services, such that we cannot afford to lose them.

Of course, it is easy to say that, and at the heart of all of this is a tension between economic development and the need to preserve biodiversity. It is very easy for us in our developed societies in the West to say, “We must discourage the commercial exploitation of these forests and this land because we rely on it”. That almost imperialistic view of how to engage with this problem cannot continue or be sustained. We must find an answer with those producing nations, whereby they can move to more sustainable economic growth patterns and are rewarded for preserving those things to which we attach so much value, such as the biodiversity and climatic services of these forests.

As the noble Lord, Lord Eden, mentioned, we are going to see some sustainable development goals set in New York, and we will then move to Paris, where we will discuss the UNFCCC. I fear that we might be pinning rather too many hopes on to that one meeting in Paris. We already face the challenge of how to control our fossil fuel-based energy emissions. In parallel, we have been discussing the related and very important issue of land-use change and deforestation and trying to create incentives to preserve our forests. Until very recently, there was a proposal that we ought to be engaging in some kind of carbon trading, where we would allow polluters to continue polluting in order to preserve forests. I think now it is finally being realised that these two things need to be done separately: we need to price carbon and reduce carbon emissions as well as creating financial incentives to preserve our rainforests and, indeed, the forests all over world that sustain biodiversity and act as a carbon sink. But where will the money come from? That seems to be the nub of many problems to do with these international global issues where there is a high degree of complexity due to equity and sustainable development—who is going to pay whom to do what, and who will oversee it? I do not have the answers and I do not think we will have time to arrive at them this evening, but relying on a self-regulating system that is now over a decade old has been criticised from a number of quarters for lacking teeth. I note that on 9 March, 100 members of the RSPO were suspended due to the failure to report. It feels like this initiative might well be running into the buffers. Perhaps we need to go back to the UN charter and back to Rio, and start to rethink how we deal with these big issues of global land management.

Tonight’s debate has focused on palm oil—quite rightly, because it brings an interesting and unique set of challenges—but it is by far not the only crop that has these associated problems. Soya production is another example—in fact, it is probably an even more widely used product in terms of volume—that we must tackle. There are countless other non-food related crops where you could question the sense of using land for them. I would include in that the global land given up for tobacco production, which also has a deforestation impact.

There are big issues to be looked at but I am not convinced by the voluntary, vested interests-led, stakeholder approach. It feels a little dated and possibly needs to be looked at again in the light of member state co-operation. This has to be sorted out at government level. We probably need to look at some form of international oversight. We thank the RSPO for the work it has been able to do but the time has probably come to acknowledge that it is time to move on.

I have enjoyed this debate very much and again thank the noble Lord, Lord Eden, for his contribution tonight and for his passion for this topic throughout the years. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I start by sincerely thanking my noble friend Lord Eden of Winton for raising this very important issue. He became the country’s youngest MP in 1954 and went on to join the Lords in 1983. On his retirement this June, he will have served an incredible 61 years in Parliament. His expertise will be sorely missed. I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for the tribute that he paid.

I also note that my noble friend Lord Eden was vice-president of the International Tree Foundation for more than 40 years, which brings me back to the subject of today’s debate: the impact of palm oil plantations on our planet’s climate and biodiversity. Needless to say, the Government are fully committed to responding to the challenge of land use change to our planet’s climate and biodiversity. Globally, as we have heard, around 13 million hectares of forest were converted to other uses or lost through natural causes each year between 2000 and 2010. More action is needed if we are to meet our objective of halving deforestation by 2020 and ending natural forest loss by 2030.

We have heard from my noble friend Lord Eden and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, of all the uses of palm oil, and global demand for palm oil is expected only to grow. Estimates by the Earth Security Group suggest that demand will increase by 32% by 2020. Production of palm oil is already increasing in Colombia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and areas of west and central Africa. Yet there is growing recognition that unsustainable production of palm oil may increase the destruction of tropical rainforest and drainage of peat-land areas. In turn, this destruction has major impacts on biodiversity, climate change and the land rights of local peoples, as we have heard.

For example, we know that clearing forests and peat-lands releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases; oil palm plantations hold fewer than half as many vertebrate species as primary forests; and conversion of forests to plantations can reduce the number of bird species by at least 60%. The species most at threat are those which rely on habitats that are not found in palm oil plantations: animals as diverse as the Malaysia river frog, the orangutan—as we have heard—and the Borneo elephant.

We recognise the need for a better understanding of these impacts if we are going to respond in the most effective way. That is why Defra and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, together with the Stockholm Environment Institute, have developed a model to assess the potential impact of UK imports on the environment and biodiversity overseas. A project using this model to evaluate the impact of palm oil plantations on biodiversity in south-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America is due to report in May, and we look forward to those results. However, this should not delay, and has not delayed, the Government from taking action to promote both the supply and the demand of sustainably produced palm oil.

Efforts have been made to produce palm oil more sustainably, and chief among them, as we know, is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO is a global, multi-stakeholder organisation where businesses and NGOs have worked together to agree principles and criteria for the sustainable production of palm oil, develop a certification system and bring certified sustainable palm oil to market. However, I hear the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, has when she asks: where is the scientific community and where is the rigour in their inspection? The RSPO has been effective in many areas and is the key international organisation driving the move to sustainable palm oil. Without it, the transition would be extremely difficult. There are still some areas of the RSPO principles and criteria that the Government would like to see tightened, notably the inclusion of a standard on greenhouse gas emissions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, also wondered about the inclusion of the United Nations. In November 2014, the United Nations environment programme and the RSPO signed a memorandum of understanding, which aims to raise global awareness and generate market demand for sustainable palm oil. Moves are in hand on that.

In the UK, we have been working with trade associations, NGOs and others since 2011 to encourage the switch to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. During the Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia in April 2012, we announced that we would work with British trade associations and companies to set out a road map to achieving sustainable palm oil use nationwide. In October 2012, we published a joint statement with key palm oil-using sectors, setting out that:

“The United Kingdom is working towards achieving 100% sourcing of credibly certified sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, talked about this, and we are working towards it. The Government are also a signatory to the statement and fund a support service for businesses to move to sustainable sourcing. We track progress towards this shared ambition through annual palm oil consumption reports. We have also amended the government buying standard for food and catering so that all food and catering products bought by central government must meet sustainability requirements from the end of 2015.

The UK is one of the leading importer countries encouraging the move to sustainable palm oil and the latest figures show that the UK is making progress. Analysis shows that the estimated proportion of UK palm oil imports supported by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification was either 55% or 71% in 2013, depending on the trade data source.

Internationally, we are working with Governments, the private sector, scientists and civil society in a range of countries to incentivise sustainable palm oil production and reduce carbon emissions and habitat loss through combating deforestation.

My noble friend Lord Dundee raised the issue of European co-operation. We are supportive of greater knowledge exchange and co-ordination between national commitments and have already participated in a number of meetings with representatives of other national commitments. More generally, the EU is considering the development of an action plan on deforestation and forest degradation, as outlined in the EU’s seventh environmental action programme. The Government support consideration of an action plan to promote Europe-wide action on the supply and demand of commodities linked to deforestation. We will certainly seek to work with our European neighbours in this respect.

I would like to highlight two key programmes aiming to make a difference in Malaysia and Indonesia. The first is the Government’s £3.9 billion international climate fund, for which tackling global deforestation is a priority. In total, over £500 million has been committed to forestry projects, and a number of noble Lords asked about the funding for this. The Department for International Development has recently invested £60 million in a new programme that has the potential to improve the productivity of existing smallholder palm oil plantations, whose yields are typically half those of professional plantations and who apply higher environmental and social standards. In that way, we can help farmers increase their yields without having to clear more forest.

Secondly, since 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s South East Asia Prosperity Fund programme has supported a project that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those linked to palm oil plantations. This project has created a knowledge exchange network between policy advisers, local and international NGOs, businesses and scientists. The network disseminates scientific information and informs evidence-based policy development on sustainable oil palm production in Malaysia and Indonesia.

These programmes support wider government action to protect endangered species and valuable peat-lands affected by the demand for palm oil. In 2013, the orangutan was a featured species in our awareness-raising campaign, If They’re Gone, which focused on the need for sustainable palm oil. The Government have provided $500,000 to the Global Tiger Initiative, which aims to double tiger numbers in the wild by 2022.

My noble friend asked what progress was being made on REDD+ and who was monitoring the distribution of funds. UK International Climate Fund finance for forests is used for all three phases of REDD+. DECC, Defra and DfID support the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the BioCarbon Fund and the Forest Investment Program. These programmes are administered and monitored by the World Bank and are subject to periodic independent review. We welcome the progress made by more than 50 countries in developing programmes that support efforts to slow, halt and reverse deforestation. Separately, I note that this week my noble friend Lord De Mauley is leading the UK delegation in Botswana in a follow-up conference to last year’s London conference on combating the illegal wildlife trade.

However, this Government’s efforts do not stop there. The UK is playing a leading role in negotiations both on a legally binding climate agreement and on the sustainable development goals. I assure my noble friend that we will be represented at the New York meeting in September. My noble friend was quite right to highlight the opportunity that these negotiations will afford. Both are essential for the international community and should enable us to agree an effective response to global issues and to protect our planet’s natural resources.

My noble friend Lord Eden asked about the blurring of the definitions of “forest” and “rainforest” which enables people to avoid conservation obligations. All international agreements which promote the concept of sustainable forest management apply to all types of forest, irrespective of their origins. That is deliberate, as it allows recognition of the specific economic, social and environmental roles played by different types of forest.

My noble friend asked what Her Majesty’s Government’s objectives were for the Paris COP in December. Here, the UK is working with EU member states and other countries to secure a legally binding agreement with mitigation commitments for all in Paris at the end of the year.

My noble friend Lord Dundee asked how we target SMEs in the hospital sector. The door remains open to organisations wishing to sign up to the UK statement. Defra is working with the Central Point of Expertise on Timber and trade associations to provide support to businesses including SMEs on sourcing sustainable palm oil. We recognise that there are a significant number of SMEs in the food, drink and hospitality sectors, and CPET has been working with the relevant trade associations to provide support that meets the needs of its members. My noble friend also asked to what extent mandatory EU requirements, in particular the renewable energy directive, would be implemented. Since 2011, all biofuels rewarded under the UK’s renewable transport fuel obligation have had to meet mandatory sustainability criteria provided for the renewable energy directive.

I am extremely grateful to noble Lords for the issues raised in today’s debate. I hope that I have covered the various questions raised in my reply, but I will be more than happy to pass on any specific questions to my counterparts in DfID, Defra and DECC. Once again, I thank my noble friend Lord Eden for initiating this debate on such an important topic and for the passion with which he spoke. I also thank other noble Lords who provided contributions and questions on this issue. We shall all hope for real action and engagement in the months ahead and for an improvement in the situation as it stands.