For me, 2015 is turning out to be the Year of the Oil Palm.

It’s already more than a year since I took on the role of chairing the Steering Committee for the High Carbon Stock Study, at the invitation of both Unilever and Sime Darby, two of Forum for the Future’s biggest Partners. It’s been a year of rolling recruitment.

First, Dr John Raison (former Chief Scientist at Australia’s main research organisation) came on board as Co-Chair, and he’s been brilliant, not least as a serious sustainability and forestry expert in his own right.

John then recruited his Technical Committee, made up of seven global experts taking responsibility for the four main areas of our Study: estimating carbon in above- and below-ground biomass in rainforest; estimating carbon losses from soils after forest conversion to oil palm; the potential for remote sensing technologies to improve the spatial estimation of carbon changes; and a wide range of socio-economic issues regarding local communities, human rights, indigenous peoples and so on.

The Technical Committee then scoped out detailed research briefs for each of the 14 separate areas of enquiry that make up the total Study, and set out identifying, selecting and contracting more than 20 eminent scientists from all around the world. And they’re now all hard at work!

As you can see, this is one humungous process that’s been set in train here – commissioning more than half a million pounds’-worth of top-notch science to inform and (hopefully!) guide both policy and practice in one of the world’s most controversial areas – namely, the conversion of tropical forests to agriculture.

That controversy both rumbles on and bubbles up with unpredictable energy. And quite right too. Continuing high levels of tropical deforestation are of massive concern – particularly in countries like Brazil (seen until recently by leading environmentalists as a country that had ‘got it sorted’ after a decade of gradual reductions in forest loss, only to be hugely embarrassed by a resurgence in all of Brazil’s worst forest-trashing practices), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and so on.

Hence the wholly understandable urge to get policymakers and businesses to sign up to a simple ‘zero deforestation’ commitment. It’s commendably cut-and-dried, definitive even, and obviously on the side of the purest of angels when it comes to addressing one of today’s biggest sustainability challenges.

But it’s turned out to be not so much simple as simplistic. There isn’t even an agreed consensus on what is meant by ‘deforestation’, let alone zero deforestation. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, does not count conversion of forest to oil palm or rubber as deforestation, whereas the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization does. What’s more, nobody (including Greenpeace) really means ‘zero’ (as in literally no trees to be cut down) when they say zero deforestation, which means you instantly have to start defining ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ levels of zero!

That’s basically why the highly influential Consumer Goods Forum based its commitment to avoid causing further deforestation through companies’ supply chains on the notion of Zero Net Deforestation – though it has to be said that not much has been done, as yet, to nail down exactly what that means!

Little wonder that this remains such a controversial area. But on top of all the painstaking work already done on this by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, two separate initiatives are now hard at it trying to move things forward.

The first is the High Carbon Stock Study, set up by seven major growers, traders and users of palm oil, as part and parcel of their commitment to something called the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto. I’ve outlined the Study above. It’ll be all done and dusted by the end of the year.

The second is called the High Carbon Stock Approach, which is made up of NGOs and companies (some of which also work with the High Carbon Stock Study!) following up on a key piece of work completed in 2013 which defined different ‘forest strata’ and determined a ‘tonnes of CO2 per hectare’ threshold to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable.

That piece of work was commissioned by Greenpeace, a consultancy called The Forest Trust, and one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, Golden Agri Resources – part of the massively powerful APP Group with which Greenpeace was then working (heroically!) to help get them onto some kind of a ‘zero deforestation’ path. The Report caused considerable controversy when it was first published, and has never been peer reviewed.

Since then, Golden Agri Resources has been found to have been in breach (repeatedly, on many counts, and very materially) of the basic agreements it had signed up to under the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, both in Kalimantan (in Indonesia) and in Liberia – through its sister company, Golden Veroleum. Which has, of course, been equally controversial! (Much of the investigation into those breaches has been done by Forest People’s Programme, a hugely experienced NGO which is now playing a major part in the socio-economic work being done for our Study.)

But things have moved on a long way for the HCS Approach, and just last week they issued their new Toolkit that they’ve been working on for the last nine months. There are as yet no third-party reviews of this, but one thing is already clear: they’ve made great progress on many of the key socio-economic issues regarding the rights and interests of local people – which was almost entirely overlooked in the original study.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be two separate initiatives. But the key NGOs (Greenpeace and WWF) declined to get involved in the HCS Study when it was being set up. They simply didn’t trust most of the companies that had signed up to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto, and at that time felt that they’d provided all the answers needed through that original study in 2013. Everyone now recognises that this was not a smart claim.

So here’s the good news – in the real world rather than an ideal world! We’re all very aware of the need to work as collaboratively as possible, and to share as much as possible of our respective work programmes. The Technical Committee set up as part of our Study works closely with the principal scientists involved in the alternative Approach, and we’re both in discussion with the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil and other related initiatives to create the best possible chance of an eventual and constructive convergence.

Suffice it to say, however, that such a convergence is unlikely to have some kind of absolutist ‘zero definition’ at its heart. It’s entirely correct that much of the projected growth in oil palm development does not require any deforestation at all – there’s a lot of degraded and scrubby land (particularly in Indonesia) that has to be the top priority for new planting. And much can be done by helping smallholders to increase their yields – often less than 50% of what can be achieved on the most efficient plantations.

But some new development will involve some deforestation – once the detailed assessments have been done to avoid all forests of High Conservation Value and all forests that have high levels of carbon both in the biomass above ground and in the roots and soil below ground. And some of that new development will certainly be in areas where local communities have decided for themselves that the oil palm (planted, managed, harvested and marketed in the most sustainable way possible) is part of their development story.

And who, here in the rich world, with all our disgustingly wasteful, high-carbon over-consumption, is going to say to some of the world’s poorest people (in Liberia, for example) that this is ‘unacceptable’?