Deforestation Fueling Global Warming

Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to global warming, climate change and the extinction of endangered species. The conversion of ancient rainforests into plantations for commodities, including palm plantations, is the driving factor behind deforestation.

Global tree cover loss reached a record 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) in 2016 and it continued at the same pace through 2017. Much of the loss is happening in tropical rainforests, which are hotspots for biodiversity and endangered species. The annual loss now is an area about the size of New Zealand. Forest fires contributed to the recent spike. Deforestation due to agriculture, logging, and mining continue to drive global tree cover loss.

Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses, including plantations. Tropical forests are annually burned down and replaced by palm tree plantations in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil, which is derived from the dates grown on palm trees.

Palm oil is used in thousands of products, including biofuel, food and cosmetics. Even those Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil. l

EU countries consume about 12 percent of Malaysian palm oil exports, and a portion of this is used as a substitute for crude oil in the production of biofuel.

To help combat deforestation, Norway has banned biofuels made from palm oil and it encourages other nations to follow its example. The new regulation will take effect in 2020. The decision is supposedly more comprehensive in its attempt to cover the entire fuel market. The decision also called for the government “to formulate a comprehensive proposal for policies and taxes in the biofuels policy in order to exclude biofuels with high deforestation risk.” Starting in 2020, the government will impose taxes and policies to exclude biofuels linked to deforestation. While the Norwegian market accounts for less than one percent of the total palm oil exports, it sets an example towards market-based policies to reduce deforestation. The European Union also will ban the use of palm oil in motor fuels in 2021.

“The Norwegian parliament’s decision sets an important example to other countries and demonstrates the need for a serious reform of the world’s palm oil industry,” said Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Crop-based biofuels are facing mounting criticism in Europe with opponents claiming some crops that are grown on plantations cause deforestation. At the same time, Europe remains the leading market for sustainable palm oil and environmental and sustainability issues continue to be a topic of debate among consumers and policymakers. People are looking for greater levels of transparency, commitment and sustainability, which has prompted many key players to step up their sustainability commitments and pledge to create a deforestation-free industry. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is working towards making sustainable palm oil the norm through a process of market transformation and has a goal to reach 100 percent certified Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe by 2020. This target is echoed in national industry initiatives and signatories to the Amsterdam Declarations governments such as the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands.

deforestation and global warming

Palm oil isn’t going away. The rapid expansion of palm plantations comes at the expense of tropical ecosystems, native populations, land degradation and carbon emissions, argue environmentalists and campaigners. The debate is leading to more global consumers making ethical choices about products containing palm oil.

In September, Nestlé stepped up its no-deforestation commitment by becoming the first food company to use a high-tech satellite-based service to monitor its palm oil supply chains. In a bid to distance itself from the controversy associated with deforestation and hit its 2020 no-deforestation targets, Nestlé implemented Starling, a global verification system using cutting-edge technology combining high-resolution radar and optical satellite imagery to provide constant unbiased monitoring of land cover changes and forest cover disturbances.

This action came after the Swiss food giant being suspended from the RSPO in June for breaching its code of conduct. At the time, Nestlé said it “is not conducive to achieving the levels of industry transparency and transformation the sector so urgently needs” and pointed out that although the company shares RSPO’s ambition for improving the social and environmental performance of the palm oil sector, “our approaches differ.”

The following month, the trade organization reinstated Nestlé’s membership, after the company submitted its action plan to achieve 100 percent RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil.

Last June, a report examining palm oil said its production is a disaster for tropical rainforests and trashing the habitats of orangutans and tigers – but alternatives like soy, corn and rapeseed could be even worse because these crops are much more land-hungry. The report “Oil palm and biodiversity” is an in-depth analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Oil Palm Task Force, which delves into the many challenges of palm oil production in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. 

  • About half of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared, according to the FAO.
  • Forests currently cover about 30 percent of the world’s landmass, according to National Geographic.
  • The Earth loses 18.7 million acres of forests per year, which is equal to 27 soccer fields every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
  • It is estimated that 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, according to the WWF.
  • The country with the most deforestation is Indonesia. Since the turn of the century, Indonesia has lost at least 39 million acres (15.79 million hectares) of forest.

Common methods of deforestation are burning trees and clear cutting. These tactics leave the land completely barren and are controversial practices. 

Deforestation and Climate Change

Deforestation is considered to be one of the contributing factors to global warming and climate change. The leading problem caused by deforestation is the impact on the global carbon cycle.

The deforestation of trees not only lessens the amount of carbon stored, it also releases carbon dioxide into the air. According to the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment, deforestation releases nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, though the numbers are not as high as the ones recorded in the previous decade. Deforestation is the second largest anthropogenic (human-caused) source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (after fossil fuel combustion), ranging between 6 percent and 17 percent, according to a study published in 2009 in Nature.

Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas that is affected by deforestation. Water vapor is also considered a greenhouse gas. “The impact of deforestation on the exchange of water vapor and carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the terrestrial land surface is the biggest concern with regard to the climate system,” said Daley. Changes in their atmospheric concentration will have a direct effect on climate. 

Deforestation has decreased global vapor flows from land by four percent, according to an article published by the journal National Academy of Sciences. Even this slight change in vapor flows can disrupt natural weather patterns and change current climate models. 

Forests are complex ecosystems that affect almost every species on the planet. When they are degraded, it can set off a devastating chain of events both locally and around the world.

Loss of species: Seventy percent of the world’s plants and animals live in forests and are losing their habitats to deforestation, according to National Geographic. Loss of habitat can lead to species extinction. It also has negative consequences for medicinal research and local populations that rely on the animals and plants in the forests for hunting and medicine.

Water cycle: Trees are important to the water cycle. They absorb rain fall and produce water vapor that is released into the atmosphere. Trees also lessen the pollution in water, according to the North Carolina State University, by stopping polluted runoff. In the Amazon, more than half the water in the ecosystem is held within the plants, according to the National Geographic Society. 

Soil erosion: Tree roots anchor the soil. Without trees, the soil is free to wash or blow away, which can lead to vegetation growth problems. The WWF states that scientists estimate that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to deforestation since 1960. After a clear cutting, cash crops like coffee, soy and palm oil are planted. Planting these types of trees can cause further soil erosion because their roots cannot hold onto the soil. “The situation in Haiti compared to the Dominican Republic is a great example of the important role forests play in the water cycle,” Daley said. Both countries share the same island, but Haiti has much less forest cover than the Dominican Republic. As a result, Haiti has endured more extreme soil erosion, flooding and landslide issues.

reforestation and climate change

Reforestation Not A Silver Bullet

Many believe that to counter deforestation, people simply need to plant more trees. Though a massive replanting effort would help to alleviate the problems deforestation caused, it would not solve them all. Reforestation would facilitate:

  • Restoring the ecosystem services provided by forests including carbon storage, water cycling and wildlife habitat;
  • Reducing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and
  • Rebuilding wildlife habitats.

Reforestation won’t completely fix the damage, though. Forests cannot sequester all of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and a reduction in fossil fuel emissions. It is still necessary to avoid buildup in the atmosphere. Reforestation will not help with extinction due to deforestation, either. “Unfortunately, we have already diminished the population of many species to such an extreme that they might not recover, even with a massive reforestation effort,” Daley told Live Science.

In addition to reforestation, some other tactics are being taken to counteract or slow deforestation. Some of them include shifting the human population to a plant-based diet. This would lower the need for land to be cleared for raising livestock. Global Forest Watch has also initiated a project to counteract deforestation through awareness. The organization uses satellite technology, open data and crowdsourcing to detect and alert others of deforestation. Their online community encourages stakeholders to share their personal experiences and the negative effects of deforestation.

RSPO Background & Update (November 2020):

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body formed in 2004 with a mission to reassure consumers that palm oil bearing its certificate of approval is free from links with primary forest destruction, damage to endangered species’ habitats or abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities. As you can see, just from the following links, complaints and commentary, the RSPO is severely lacking after 16 years of blowing smoke.

Certified ‘sustainable’ palm oil plantations endanger mammal habitats and biodiverse tropical forests over 30 years. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-certified-sustainable-palm-oil-fields.html

2020 Bribery Case https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/palm-oil-rspo/press-release/2020/large-scale-bribery-and-illegal-land-use-violations-alleged-large

Earth.org supports sustainable palm oil in concept. Not there, yet. https://earth.org/how-palm-oil-contributes-to-environmental-destruction/

Redd Monitor https://redd-monitor.org/2019/11/05/greenwash-how-the-rspo-fails-to-uphold-its-own-rules/

Redd Monitor https://theecologist.org/2015/nov/19/sustainable-palm-oil-rspos-greenwashing-and-fraudulent-audits-exposed

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2019) https://eia-international.org/news/palm-oil-watchdogs-sustainability-guarantee-is-still-a-destructive-con/

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2015): https://eia-international.org/report/who-watches-the-watchmen/

Mongabay Perspective (2020) https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/palm-oil-certification-sustainable-rspo-deforestation-habitat-study/ RSPO meaningless

Palm Oil and Biodiversity (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/26/palm-oil-disastrous-for-wildlife-but-here-to-stay-experts-warn

Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/jwebb/2016/11/30/amnesty-international-slams-colgate-nestle-and-unilever-for-palm-oil-supply-chain-abuses/2/#456cd1564161

Food First (2019) https://foodfirst.org/the-forest-farms-still-stand-indonesias-krui-forest-farmers-persist-in-the-face-of-capitalisms-relentless-squeeze/

BBC November 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54798452

As you will see, in 2015, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Grassroots released the report Who Watches the Watchmen? It revealed reckless management, extensive fraud as well as sub-standard and underhand assurance processes within the RSPO. The RSPO is often hailed as the best certification scheme for palm oil based on its standard – the Principles and Criteria (P&C). However, it receives far less scrutiny as to how it is ensuring its standards are adhered to and, therefore, its impact. Four years on from that report, the RSPO is about to start implementing its new and improved P&C – and we return to the scene of the crime to assess what, if anything, has changed and how the RSPO has responded to the serious concerns raised in 2015. Investigations have found that the action taken by the RSPO is severely lacking. Despite it setting up an Assurance Task Force, this body has failed to deliver and complete its objectives. The Assurance Task Force stands as one of the worst-run working groups of the RSPO. It has been disorganized, unprofessionally managed, and has chronically missed deadlines. The last update from the Assurance Task Force in 2018 reported 55 per cent of the activities were incomplete. Of the five key objectives under the Task Force, only the development of Free, Prior and Informed Consent guidelines has been completed, but their effectiveness is unknown. For the other four objectives, the actions and outputs under each of them has not led to the fulfillment of the objectives. Many of the same issues remain, have recurred and could easily occur again.

Non-adherence to the RSPO’s standards is systemic and widespread, and has led to ongoing land conflicts, labor abuses and destruction of forests. As the world approaches 2020 targets to halt deforestation, the RSPO needs to rapidly implement radical solutions to restore its credibility. We question whether the RSPO is willing and able to rectify its systemic failures – ultimately, voluntary certification is too limited by its voluntary nature.

The Watchmen report identified:

  • Auditors providing fraudulent assessments that cover up violations of the RSPO Standard and procedures;
  • Auditors failing to identify indigenous land right claims;
  • Auditors failing to identify social conflicts arising due to abuse of community rights;
  • Auditors failing to identify serious labor abuses;
  • Auditors failing to identify risks of trafficked labor being used in plantations;
  • Ambiguity over legal compliance;
  • Auditors providing methodologically and substantively flawed High Conservation Value (HCV) area assessments that will enable destruction of HCVs;
  • Certification bodies displaying weak understanding of the P&C standard;
  • Certification bodies providing suspect assessments in response to legitimate complaints from NGOs, which fail to address the substance of the complaints;
  • Conflicts of interest due to links between certification bodies and plantation companies.

Following the publication of the Watchmen report, a Resolution on ‘Ensuring quality, oversight and credibility of RSPO assessments’ which compelled the RSPO to act on the concerns raised was adopted in 2015 by RSPO members. The RSPO formed the Assurance Task Force (ATF) in 2016. (Better late than never.)

Four years later, significant concerns about the RSPO’s assurance systems still remain. More widely the credibility and impact of third-party certification schemes is in doubt. The New York Declaration on Forests concluded in September 2019 that deforestation has accelerated not diminished, despite certification schemes.

In 2018, the RSPO adopted a new and improved Principles and Criteria (P&C) that includes provisions for ensuring no deforestation, no new planting on peat, the protection of human rights defenders, improved workers’ rights and better smallholder inclusion. All audits undertaken from November 2019 will be assessed for compliance with this new P&C 2018. In 2019, the RSPO also announced it would establish a permanent Assurance Standing Committee (ASC). These developments are a natural point at which to take stock and undertake an analysis of the performance of the RSPO’s systems to-date.

With that powerful admission firmly on the table, what did RSPO stand for prior to 2019? The producers and buyers throughout the supply chain were clearly duped. That or they were complicit in one of the most destructive green-washing schemes in history.

The Watchmen report raised a number of concerns around the RSPO’s complaints system including that it failed to properly address the complicity of auditors in non-compliances which led to complaints, that certification bodies were allowed to assess complaints for companies they had certified – a clear conflict of interest – and measures were not taken against auditors even when the culpability of auditors was established in the complaints.

One of the key shortcomings highlighted was RSPO’s inability to detect violations before considerable harm had occurred and its unwillingness to contemplate a system which proactively identifies violation through the its own processes.

As of October 2019, there were 38 open complaints in the RSPO system. The longest has been open nine and a half years. About one third have been open more for than three years. On average, it takes 700 days before complaints are closed. According to the RSPO, the most frequent complaints are on Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), HCV areas and certification bodies – the very same issues documented in the Watchmen report.

The failures raised back in both 2013 and 2015 still remain institutionalized. Many NGOs have raised continuing concerns about the RSPO’s complaints – Profundo provides

recent examples of such concerns, as do the case studies in this report. RSPO members quitting the RSPO rather than resolving complaints remains a problem and seems to prevent the RSPO from sanctioning members over complaints to minimize its risk of losing members. The RSPO adopted a resolution in 2018 to try and discourage members with unresolved complaints from avoiding their obligations by divesting or membership withdrawal. It is yet to be seen how well this can be implemented.

According to the Forest People:

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) accepted a complaint against Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), alleging numerous violations of Indonesian law and RSPO standards. Based on state-of-the-art GIS and satellite imagery, the complaint alleges that GAR is illegally operating oil palm plantations inside Indonesia’s protected Forest Zone. The complaint, lodged by Forest Peoples Programme and Elk Hills Research, cites recent bribery convictions of multiple GAR officials in Central Kalimantan as evidence that the company was both aware of these land-use violations and corruptly tried to cover its tracks.  According to the complaint, over 75,000 hectares of GAR’s land appear to be being used for unlawful oil palm production, representing over 15% of GAR’s total plantation area.

FPP and Elk Hills Research have called on RSPO to investigate these serious violations of RSPO standards and to suspend the sustainability certificates of GAR’s operations.

“RSPO knew about this bribery case when it was first reported but took no action. The RSPO Complaints Panel has also delayed for years taking action on the numerous other human rights violations and land disputes by GAR that we have exposed in previous complaints but which remain unresolved” says Marcus Colchester, FPP’s Senior Policy Advisor.

“The RSPO is meant to ensure accountability but instead allows impunity. This must end,” said Colchester.

“For too long, Golden Agri has benefited financially from unsustainable and unethical practices, while using its RSPO membership to represent to investors and customers that it behaves sustainably and ethically,” said Brennan Bilberry, co-founder of Elk Hills Research. “The serious evidence of deforestation, bribery, and general lawlessness we have uncovered warrant quick action by the RSPO, so it can put an end to what appears to be GAR’s systemic misconduct. It is time for multinational consumer goods companies to make good on their sustainability commitments by re-examining their relationship with companies that contribute to deforestation and corruption.”

US investors interested in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives funded the work by Elk Hills Research, which contributed to this complaint—the first of its magnitude.

“It’s time for investors who are serious about ESG to move from mere passive avoidance to more active engagement, either by demanding that problematic companies change their practices or, if necessary, by exposing flagrant violations of environmental and good-governance laws. By working to uncover wrongdoing like that alleged in our complaint, investors can ensure that the worst offenders suffer real consequences, which may be key to preventing corporate wrongdoing,” said Jamie Crooks, co-founder of Elk Hills Research.

Thanks to Forest People! I applaud your work.

With that said, the question remains, what does RSPO stand for today? In a complaint filed in 2020 by Forest People, it claims that RSPO is complicit in bribery schemes, cover-ups and overall mismanagement. So, why should the world believe them after 16 years of crimes against nature and humanity?

deforestation and global warming

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management and land use are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.