Last week, after nearly a year’s work, the High Carbon Stock Steering Committee (of which I’m the Co-Chair) issued its Draft Synthesis Report for consultation.

At one level, our Report is all about a simple tale of trying to reconcile two conflicting imperatives:

Minimise (and, where possible, eliminate) emissions of greenhouse gases from continuing deforestation.

Where appropriate, and only in certain countries, address continuing levels of chronic poverty by creating jobs in industries like palm oil and rubber.

One route to trying to reconcile those two imperatives is captured in the ‘zero deforestation’ mantra – as in absolutely no further deforestation, however good the opportunities might be for creating economic and social value.

As I’ve said before, this is a commendable and worthy goal, and certainly seductive in its apparent simplicity.

But the problem is, it doesn’t really work! Primarily for two reasons:

1. Governments of the countries most involved in the palm oil industry are understandably reluctant to commit to a zero deforestation position without some kind of financial compensation. Until now, it’s proved extremely difficult to broker robust deals (under the REDD – Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degredation – process) to provide such compensation. It seems that the recent conference in Bonn was surprisingly positive about a way forward here, but that won’t produce anything in the short term.

2. Historically, in many instances, local communities were not consulted either about converting what they rightly see as ‘their forests’ or about protecting them! As the FPIC – Free, Prior and Informed Consent – process begins to kick in, that will change. But without their engagement and active buy-in (with some ongoing economic benefits), zero deforestation prescriptions just don’t work at the local level.

Our Science Study is seeking to address this unfortunate reality by coming up with proposals that can be adopted (and then enforced) by governments, and that can form the basis for negotiated agreements with local communities.

To achieve that, we’ve set out to define where conversion for palm oil is fine (in terms of there being no impact on forests), where it’s absolutely not fine (in terms of unacceptably high levels of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from that conversion), and where it might be OK, depending on two things:

– emissions staying below a certain threshold;
– substantive economic benefits accruing to local communities in a transparent and accountable way.

This ‘Red-Amber-Green’ story is what we’re now consulting on – and, in particular, the threshold between the red zone and the amber zone.

Unfortunately, that’s where the simple tale ends. The details are often technical, and invariably contested!

But the reality is (and you have to keep coming back to that reality) that everybody knows ‘zero’ is impossible. As yet, however, not everybody buys into the idea that the most effective way of protecting those forests that could be converted into oil palm is to permit some limited and strictly controlled deforestation to secure substantive economic and social benefits for some of the world’s poorest people.

The devil, of course, is in the detail of thresholds and controls, and that’s what our Report is all about. It’s now open for consultation for the next month or so, so I do hope that anybody interested will be able to feed into this.