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The Environmental Benefits of Sustainable Palm Oil: A Step Towards a Greener Future


Informed consumer choices are one of the cornerstones of a sustainable and environmentally friendly future. Vegetable oils are an essential part of the global consumer economy, from food and cosmetics to biodiesels. 

Of all the oils, palm oil is the most critical. It has faced significant criticism due to its environmental impacts and association with deforestation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

However, palm oil producers certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) adopt efficient land use practices, produce higher oil yields, and invest in renewable energy sources. This reduces the need for expanding plantations into forested areas, mitigates emissions from land conversion, and contributes to lower carbon footprints. Methane capture and utilization also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil mills.

There are other environmental benefits of sustainable palm oil plantations. When developed on low-carbon stock lands, palm oil may have an even lower emissions factor than comparative oil crops. Furthermore, preventing expansion on forest and peat land, banning burning for land clearance, and using methane capture technology at mills, can reduce the life- cycle emissions of palm oil by 42%. 
Research on RSPO-certified plantations puts the lifecycle CO2e emissions of palm oil at 3,4kg/kg, i.e., lower than sunflower or soybean.

Eliminating palm oil without viable alternatives would not solve the issue of deforestation. While it is true that other vegetable oils exist, they often require more land for cultivation and have lower oil yields compared to palm oil. This would result in the need to convert larger areas of land, potentially leading to even more deforestation.

According to the United Nations, the world will need to feed a global population that is set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and we’ll need to use less land to produce 60% more food. Global demand for food is expected to grow by 46% by 2050, meaning that if the environmental impacts are to be limited, very high crop yields will be required. Palm oil has the highest yield/ha of the main vegetable oil crops.

Oil yields for palm per hectare is almost 6-10 times that of other oilseeds such as rapeseed, soybean, olive, or sunflower. To replace palm oil would mean nine times more land allocation to produce a similar amount of oil from these alternative crops. In the pursuit of a more sustainable supply chain, the EU is banning the most efficient oil which has strong sustainability potential.

Sustainable palm oil, as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) , can be a viable and responsible choice; palm oil releases fewer GHG emissions and needs far less land compared to other vegetable oils.

Certified sustainable palm oil plantations adhere to a no deforestation policy, ensuring that palm oil plantations are not established in high conservation value areas, primary forests, or areas with significant carbon stocks. This commitment, spelled out inPrinciple 7 of the RSPO Principles and Criteria, prevents the loss of vital forest ecosystems that serve as habitats for endangered wildlife.

These principles also prioritize the identification, preservation, and management of HCV areas within their concessions. By safeguarding these areas from deforestation, they help maintain critical wildlife habitats and ensure the survival of endangered species, including orangutans.

Reducing GHG Emissions

study published in Nature Communications found that biodiesel from sustainable oil palm plantations in the second rotation cycle or established on degraded lands produces less than one-third of the GHG emissions of fossil fuels. Biodiesel from unsustainable palm oil production, on the other hand, has nearly double the emissions of fossil fuels.

When developed on low-carbon stock lands, palm oil produces lower emissions than comparative oil crops, such as soybean, sunflowers or ground nuts. Furthermore, sustainable palm oil which prevents the expansion on forest and peat land or burning for land clearance can reduce the life- cycle emissions of palm oil by 42%.

Palm oil requires less land to produce the same amount of oil compared to other oil crops. As a result, sustainable palm oil production can help mitigate deforestation and preserve vital ecosystems. 

The Role of the RSPO

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a globally recognized organization committed to promoting sustainable palm oil production. The RSPO sets rigorous standards that encompass environmental protection, social responsibility, and economic viability. By adhering to these standards, companies can obtain RSPO certification, providing assurance that their palm oil has been sourced sustainably.

According to the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria, sustainable palm oil production requires the protection of high conservation value areas, no planting on peatlands, and the implementation of best practices for reducing GHG emissions. The RSPO’s commitment to continuous improvement and transparency in the palm oil industry has led to significant positive changes in reducing environmental impacts.

By choosing products made with RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil, consumers can contribute to the preservation of valuable ecosystems and reduce their carbon footprint. It is essential to encourage the demand for sustainable palm oil, as this creates an economic incentive for producers to transition to more environmentally friendly practices.

Palm oil production has faced valid concerns regarding deforestation and GHG emissions, but sustainable palm oil, certified by the RSPO, offers a responsible alternative. Moves by the EU to exclude even RSPO-certified palm oil from biodiesel in the bloc (but allowing other less-sustainable options) is the wrong move. Producers who are striving for sustainability should be encouraged, rather than left to service markets that are far more concerned about price than planet.

By supporting the demand for RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil, we can drive positive change and contribute to a greener future.

The Role of the MSPO

The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification Scheme is the national scheme in Malaysia for oil palm plantations, independent and organised smallholdings, and palm oil processing facilities to be certified against the requirements of the MSPO Standards.

To date, the MSPO covers around 85% of the palm oil producers in Malaysia. Having an MSPO certification shows palm oil producers are committed to produce certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) as well as promote and work together to ensure sustainability in the oil palm supply chain.