Q&A with Glenn Hurowitz: On RSPO failings, brands and ‘no deforestation’ pledges, and more

1) Are you a campaigner or a consultant? What’s the deal there?

My work is primarily as a campaigner, as the chair of Forest Heroes, a global campaign working to break the link between deforestation and agriculture.

As a Managing Director of Climate Advisers and a co-founder of the Chain Reaction Research project, I also advise governments, financial institutions, and philanthropies about how they can protect forests and help solve climate change.

2) Do you feel optimistic about reducing deforestation globally right now?

I’m very excited about the potential for the revolution that’s happening in the private sector to eliminate deforestation across supply chains.

As I’ve written before, we are seeing the beginnings of a second green revolution in global agriculture, but this one is making it compatible with a living planet.

Having said that, there are still a lot of rogue actors out there, thorny sectors like Latin American cattle, and a serious need to leverage private sector progress into enduring government action.

Here are some of the positive indicators we’ve seen over the past year:

  • Wilmar has made steady progress on implementing its No Deforestation policy. It has cut ties with several problematic suppliers, driven improvements in many more (including large players like Bumitama), and aggressively promoted good forest policy. It has also brought unprecedented transparency to commodity trade.
  • Wilmar spurred its competitors to follow suit. GAR, Cargill, Bunge, IOI, and Musim Mas have all announced No Deforestation policies. A year ago, just five percent of traded palm oil was covered by No Deforestation sourcing policies. Now that number is more than 90 percent, though important work remains on implementation.
  • ADM has announced a No Deforestation policy and action plan for soy and palm oil, spreading the deforestation free revolution to Latin America. Cargill joined Wilmar in extending its policy to all commodities around the world, though needs to start implementing this commitment pronto.
  • Attention is rising to deforestation related to commodity production in Latin America and Africa, and to issues like the excess use of fertilizer and native prairie protection in the United States.
  • The Government of Liberia concluded an agreement with Norway that will require commodity companies operating in Liberia to adhere to Wilmar’s policy.
  • The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) joined the leading palm oil producers in a pledge that called on the Indonesian government to improve forest governance, and called on the private sector to adopt No Deforestation policies. Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, has announced steps to review palm oil concessions and take other forest and peat protection measures.
  • The Singapore Government has adopted a Trans-Boundary Haze Law that imposes extra-territorial civil liability on companies that cause haze in Singapore through forest clearing and burning.
  • More than 25 major countries and 30 large companies signed the “New York Declaration on Forests” that calls on companies to adopt No-Deforestation policies, and on the world to restore hundreds of millions of acres of forest, and end global deforestation no later than 2030.

At the same time, there are other indicators that are a cause for concern:

Some palm oil companies like Jardines Matheson subsidiary Astra Agro Lestari are still trying to conduct business as usual – and politically undermine the Indonesian government’s efforts to conserve the country’s forests and restore rights to indigenous communities.

We also haven’t yet seen a comprehensive analysis that looks at the effect of private sector commitments on forest conservation.

Sarawak is an important palm oil producing region that has resisted implementation of private sector No Deforestation policies.

While I think this resistance will substantially limit their access to the global market, they could destroy substantial areas of peat forest before they come to the realization that unsustainable practices are no longer profitable.

Deforestation in Brazil, the world’s success story, has been on the rise. We hope that the private sector progress outlined above along with the Brazilian peoples’ demand for forest conservation and restoration will shift the pendulum back so that Brazil remains the world’s biggest climate success story.

Deforestation in countries outside the Brazilian Amazon like Paraguay and Bolivia has also increased – and the forests and people there desperately need the private sector to stop its own deforestation, as well as government action to protect forests and communities.

Developed world governments have so far missed a huge opportunity to reach more ambitious climate goals by investing in forest conservation and restoration, which remains the most affordable large-scale emissions reduction opportunity.

We’re hoping that will change.

Despite these reservations, and “still-to-be-dones,” there’s tremendous momentum for protection of the world’s forests.

3) Is forest restoration viable outside Europe/USA? I.e. the tropics

 

Not only is forest restoration viable outside of Europe and North America, it is happening on a grand scale. Countries including China, India, Vietnam, and the Phillipines have all limited conversion of natural forests, and are substantially increasing their forest cover.

In Costa Rica, as detailed in a recent New York Times feature, degraded forests have regrown to cover more than half the country.

These countries know that the value of forests for water, clean air, agriculture and wildlife far exceeds value of conversion – and are making determined efforts to undo costly mistakes they made in the past when they cleared vast areas of forest.

The New York Declaration on Forests issued a goal for the world to restore at least 350 million hectares of degraded forest lands by 2030, an area approximately equivalent to the size of Germany.

4) What do you make of the recent RSPO member suspension news? Fig leaf or real change?

I think that it’s mostly a fig leaf. The RSPO took a positive step by expelling members that were not even doing the bare minimum of reporting information, but their membership guidelines still allow for destruction of forests and peatlands.

As I wrote in my “Death of Sustainability” article, if something produced through wholesale destruction of tropical rainforests is considered “sustainable,” the word has lost any meaning at all.

In the palm oil industry, where the leading companies are going above and beyond RSPO standards, the RSPO will have to get a lot tougher to remain a relevant indicator of progress.

5) What should we aim to get out of our Washington, D.C .conference on April 15/16?

My hope is that the conference will serve as a venue for fruitful discussion and a catalyst for continuing the progress that has been made in forest conservation.

As a community, we must continue to push for transparency and implementation on the ground with palm oil and reign in rogue actors in the industry that stand in the way of change.

We need to extend the momentum that has been created with palm oil in Southeast Asia to other commodities and other regions — such as palm oil in Africa and soy in Latin America.

Lastly and critically, we need to organize financial institutions and investors to support the progress that’s been made and to push for progress on these new frontiers.

Leaders in the finance community that understand sustainability risks and the opportunity in front us have a unique opportunity to lead for decades to come.

6) You’ve been highly critical of UK retailers for being totally RSPO reliant. Has your view changed? 

My views on UK retailers has not changed because they have not taken any action – and continue to substitute reliance on a discredited certification scheme for action to protect forests.

As I’ve written, many UK retailers and companies continue to rely on the RSPO, while global traders and consumer companies in other parts of the world are making actual progress on the ground in eliminating deforestation through their supply chains.

UK companies are in many ways victims of their own early leadership – many British companies went to RSPO while Americans did nothing, but the Brits haven’t been nimble enough to respond to the RSPO’s failures.

Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Waitrose, and Alliance Boots (Now Walgreens Boots Alliance) really have no excuse for the unacceptably slow approach they have to limiting risk in their supply chains.

7) Tensie Whelan, president of Rainforest Alliance, says zero deforestation as a corporate target is unrealistic. Do you agree?

I believe that zero net deforestation is both realistic and also not ambitious enough. To protect forest and save the climate, we need to striving for zero deforestation, period. You can’t make up for clearing an ancient tropical rainforest by planting an acre of trees.

This model doesn’t even really work in temperate regions, and it certainly doesn’t apply in the tropics.

The NY Declaration set the goal of eliminating forest loss from commercial supply chains by 2020.

For many companies that are committing to zero-deforestation, that deadline is much sooner. We should not lower our sights from this critically necessary target.

8) Seems to me landscape governance is the big elephant in the room no companies know how to talk about. Agree? What is the business role here?

Ultimately, enduring success in land conservation will require strong government action and policy reform in forest nations.

It’s difficult to protect forests over the long-term without incorruptible forest law enforcement, pro-conservation policies, and respect for indigenous rights.

Having said that, private sector leadership is necessary in places where governments simply cannot or will not deliver conservation – we can’t just give up and let the forests fall while we wait decades for governments to get their acts together.

Glenn will be speaking at Innovation Forum’s upcoming Washington D.C. conference on tackling deforestation in corporate supply chains, where many big brands and key NGOs will meet for frank debate and discussion.  More details here

Further reading from Innovation Forum:

Forests need better laws, better enforced
Governments have a crucial role in preventing deforestation, but they need to cut through conflicting interests and reward activity that prevents destruction, argues Rhett Butler

The continuous improvement challenge
Be transparent in successes and setbacks says palm oil giant Wilmar’s Jeremy Goon, outlining progress towards the company’s tough sustainability targets


Deforestation data digest
Innovation Forum’s guide to recent deforestation research and analysis

Other upcoming events from Innovation Forum this summer:

 

Circular Advantage Business Forum – 8th-9th June 2015

The Measurement and Valuation of Corporate Sustainability – 29th-30th June, 2015