Some key points on the latest deforestation debates

Last week Innovation Forum ran the latest in our series of conferences on how companies can prevent deforestation.

This time it was in Washington D.C. and alongside it we published this free briefing.
You can also see a number of tweets and quotes from the event at: https://twitter.com/InnovaForum and also at https://twitter.com/webb_tobias
One of my favourite quotes from the event was this one:
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple, clear and wrong”
I moderated a number of discussions and here’s a few bullets of what I picked up from the discussions between companies, NGOs and even some investors.
  • Companies are becoming more comfortable with the often incredibly ambitious targets they are putting in place even though they are not entirely clear how they will achieve them. Good examples of this are Wilmar, IOI Loders Croklaan, Dunkin’ Brands and 3M to name a few.
  • There’s a three stage process to get started. Step one is good practical NGO relationships to provide confidence around putting the corporate head above the parapet and taking the leap. Step two is to deliver on transparency (using technology) and show the world the challenges, and progress as implementation begins to happen. Step three is to work with other companies to help raise the bar in the supply chain and lobby for others to do the same and governments to support. (Step four will likely be to revisit and revise targets and engage in restoration but for many that comes much later)
  • The GMO debate around deforestation is similar to other areas. There’s a lot of mistrust of the science, and exasperation on behalf of the industry as to why they are not believed by some. There appears to be no genuinely respected middle ground actors who might broker further progress. The arguments around irreversible gene pollution in the environment remain as they were a decade ago.
  • The investor community is even more absent on deforestation than in other areas of sustainable business. We had two at the conference, Calvert and Permian Global. We marketed the event to plenty but for some reason forestry and land use, despite their potential for carbon advantage, doesn’t seem to be on the finance agenda yet, even in this, of all years.
  • The potential for land use and forestry issues/areas to make a lasting and relatively quick contribution to assisting against climate change is huge. Yet actors outside a few governments, many NGOs and the leading companies appear still, somehow, incredibly, unaware of the potential, despite the rhetoric one hears constantly to the contrary. This five minute video from Stephen Rumsey of Permian Global helps show you the potential, it’s extraordinary.(Sample quote: .”..emissions from human destructions of forests have been three times that of burning fossil fuels, and secondly, if forests could recover a quarter of the biomass that they have lost that would reduce atmospheric CO2 from 400 PPM to 280 PPM”. Forest recovery is incredibly cheaper than any other solution to climate change, Rumsey argues)
  • Corporate/Campaigner relations in the US are still much more combative in many ways, than in Europe. There was considerably more tension in the room between some campaign groups and companies than at our London conference. Companies tell me this is because some campaigners use unscrupulous tactics. Campaigners say it’s because companies in North America fight change much harder. The truth, as so often, lies somewhere in between.
  • All that said, some companies are making enormous progress. More than 90% of global palm oil trading is covered by no deforestation commitments. Leading traders, brands, and even suppliers are bringing targets forward. And it’s not just in palm oil, large forestry companies are almost all making great steps forward, and this, and the lessons learned, should not be overlooked.
  • Individuals can make a difference. Amongst those who have, I’d note the work not only of Greenpeace in general, but TFT and ForestHeroes too, particularly those individuals who run them.
  • There are significant business opportunities out there for companies who get sustainability right. Here’s an example where one leading company, Sime Darby, paid something like an 85% (ish) price premium to buy a sustainability leader, New Britain Palm Oil, earlier this year.
  • There’s still a lot of silo’ed thinking in industries. Land use and livelihoods issues are common across industries but there’s a real lack of communication and knowledge sharing across commodities.
  • The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their potential for forestry and palm oil in terms of managing stakeholder relationships were not mentioned at all. At least, only by me. This is worrying and suggests companies are not using all the tools at their disposal.
  • Equally, key lessons from North America, particularly around negotiating with communities in forestry areas, may not be being taken on board elsewhere, as much as they might.
  • Companies are becoming reluctant actors in the public policy debate, as has been happening for a decade or more. But it’s a long slow road to institutional and implementable policy reform, which may now finally be accelerating. Companies are struggling to define their roles here.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals are going to be a much more significant tool for companies to use in ‘mainstreaming’ their work than many other sets of commitments. Industry groups should take note, as a focus on these may supersede other, less prominent and ambitious sets of commitments.
  • A new Rainforest Alliance report titled “Halting Deforestation and Achieving Sustainability” was released to co-incide with the conference is a very useful read and can be found here.
Our next “How Business can prevent Deforestation” conference takes place in Singapore on September 28-29. Organisations confirmed to speak include Unilever, APP, Golden Agri Resources, TFT, Sime Darby, HSBC, Wilmar and the World Economic Forum. Contact Charlenne.Ordonez@innovation-forum.co.uk to take part.