This is not a trick question. But it sure as hell is a tricky question! As evidenced by a very mischievous article by Ben Webster in The Times today making out that I had just launched new campaign to cut down what’s left of the world’s rainforests just as quickly as possible!

What I was actually launching was the High Carbon Stock Study, whose Steering Committee I co-chair.

Like all clever journos, Ben Webster is very smart at culling out quotes from the context in which they were uttered, and then using them in isolation as tendentiously as possible. So, true enough, I did indeed say ‘let poor countries cut down forests’, but with so many caveats and qualifications as to provide a very different conclusion from the one you may have drawn from the headline alone.

Back to ‘zero deforestation’. At one level, the meaning is simple: not one area of existing forest to be cut down. Anywhere. For any reason. Ever. Splendidly cut-and-dried – but not terribly smart, and completely unworkable.

Or it could mean: ‘zero deforestation in areas of high biological diversity and high carbon stocks’ – in other words, areas with significant amounts of carbon stored away in the trees themselves and in the soil beneath the forests. And even then, no deforestation without the active consent of local communities and indigenous people who depend on those forests.

As it happens, that’s what most people already mean by ‘zero deforestation’. But such a long-winded definition doesn’t really lend itself to provocative headline-mongering!

Which brings us to the debate about palm oil. The above approach is the one which the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been gradually building a consensus around for the last 12 years. It has made very good progress on the biodiversity challenge (defined as ‘forests of High Conservation Value’, which all the major palm oil producers are now committed to keeping off-limits); reasonably good progress on the local consent challenge (captured under the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ clauses in the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria); more modest progress on protecting peat (areas of land which store away vast amounts of carbon); but very little progress at all on High Carbon Stock.

And this has led to a lot of frustration – on all sides. So a few years back, an NGO called The Forest Trust (TFT) got together with one of the big palm oil producers (Golden Agri Resources) and Greenpeace to try to define what constitutes High Carbon Stock: where should the line by drawn in terms of forests that must be put off-limits (in the same way that High Conservation Value forest is put off limits), and forests that it’s ok to develop on.

(Note the rather important implication here: that there will indeed be some forests that it’s OK to develop palm oil on, so not an absolutist ‘zero deforestation’ approach).

It was a useful piece of work – but its conclusions as to where to draw that line did not command the support of the rest of the industry, there was little chance to peer-review it, and no government was involved in thinking through how best to implement such an approach. Stalemate all over again.

At which point, Unilever (the world’s biggest user of palm oil, and therefore keener than anyone to see this vexed issue sorted) invited four big palm oil producers to sign up to a new set of commitments as part of the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto. They were subsequently joined by Wilmar and Cargill.

These commitments included the decision to fund a new study, both to provide a more comprehensive, wide-ranging set of guidelines on where to draw that line, and to reflect on the socio-economic implications of different High Carbon Stock thresholds. A Steering Committee (of which I’m the co-chair) was set up to coordinate that study; some very eminent scientists have already been recruited onto a Technical Committee to appoint the researchers who will do the actual work; and we have undertaken to get it all done in a year.

At the same time, TFT, Greenpeace, and other NGOs have set up a parallel process to peer-review the original study, as well as to keep an eye on our Steering Committee. There simply wasn’t enough trust between the palm oil companies and the NGOs to bring everybody together in one process, which was very disappointing. But we intend to work as collaboratively with them as we can along the way.

It’s not going to be easy, especially when one gets down to country level. Take Liberia, for example. This is country where both Golden Agri Resources and Sime Darby (one of the signatories to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto, and a partner of Forum for the Future) have large palm oil concessions. All the HCV forests on those concessions have already been identified and set aside, and after a faltering start, the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ process is now being implemented in all areas ear-marked for development.

But there is – as yet – no industry-accepted definition of High Carbon Stock, and no government policy on High Carbon Stock. So it’s unclear at the moment how much more land will need to be set aside.

So what I was pointing out to Ben Webster was just how complex this whole story is. There are some who believe that Liberia is such an inherently corrupt country that there should be no investment in that country by foreign companies – despite it being one of the poorest countries in the world, and desperate for the kind of development that helps create both wealth and jobs. Others are content that there should indeed be some palm oil development – but only if all the best practice commitments are not just signed up to but implemented in practice on the ground.

But Ben Webster doesn’t really do complexity. Hence his less than subtle attempt to portray me – somewhat improbably! – as the new Deforester-in-Chief.