Thanks to Tony Juniper for a great article that rightly raises (again!) the question of what ‘zero’ means when people talk about deforestation.

I agree with every one of Tony’s suggestions on what needs to happen next: making use of degraded land, especially in countries like Brazil; working with smallholders to improve productivity; finding alternative ways of ensuring economic development for poor countries that don’t entail destroying their forests.

However, is that really all there is to it? The key phrase here is ‘zero net deforestation’ – that being the specific wording in the commitment made by a wide range of companies through the Consumer Goods Forum in 2010. This was a bold and very positive development, that we wholly support, and I’ve always been happy with that particular wording.

But at the risk of irritating people even more, ‘zero deforestation’ and ‘zero net deforestation’ are not the same thing! As I pointed out before, a literal (‘absolutist’) interpretation of zero deforestation would indisputably impact on the economic development opportunities of many countries. Even Brazil, which has made such good progress on reducing forest losses over the last few years, does not have a zero deforestation ‘policy’. Some of Brazil’s forests will continue to be converted for agriculture over the next decade or more.

‘Zero net deforestation’ allows for some flexibility for countries to implement a land use strategy that may still entail conversion of some forests (those with low stocks of carbon) into agricultural uses.

As we all know, this is going happen anyway. So is it not better to try and define what exactly we mean by ‘net zero deforestation’, and what exactly we mean by ‘High Carbon Stock’. If we can do that, it means that those High Carbon Stock areas (along with areas of forests with very high biodiversity) can be protected indefinitely into the future.

So I don’t see this as a ‘fork in the road’ but rather as a moment of quite painful awareness that it’s simply not possible for either companies or NGOs to dictate the terms of engagement without properly taking into account both government policy and community concerns and interests. That’s exactly what the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil has been seeking to make happen for the last 12 years. Shedding new scientific light on the whole question of what HCS means will (we believe) be immensely helpful to those who work through the RSPO, and are seeking to develop one integrated approach factoring in High Carbon Stock, High Conservation Value and the rights and interests of local communities and indigenous people.