Cradle-to-grave study answers ‘the big question’: What is the benefit of certified palm oil?
Links between palm oil production and environmental concerns, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity loss, are driving a number of food brands towards sustainably sourced palm oil.
FMCG giants Unilever, Nestlé, and Mondelēz International are among the cohort of companies committed to replacing conventionally sourced palm oil with its sustainable counterpart across their supply chains.
When sourcing sustainable palm oil, certification is the most acknowledged choice. However, to date, companies have been unable to calculate how many GHG emissions they save, nor what impact they are having on biodiversity, when committing to purchasing certified oil.
To answer ‘the big question’ of how CSPO benefits the environment, sustainable development agency 2.-0 LCA Consultants launched a crowdfunded project in 2016. The lifecycle assessment (LCA) compares palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with non-certified palm oil.
The lifecycle assessment was promoted and supported by the RSPO, yet carried out independently of the RSPO.
The project received funding from a total of 16 companies producing, using, and or developing solutions for palm oil, including Ferrero, Unilever, and Dupont.
Three years on the results are in, revealing significant GHG emission savings, among other environmental benefits, for CSPO.
The LCA looked at RSPO certified and non-certified palm oil production across Indonesia and Malaysia in 2016.
In order to compare certified and non-certified production, consultants relied on the ‘very good data’ available for the total palm oil industry, as well as RSPO’s publicly available assessment reports on its certified producers. Statistics from non-certified production came from the difference between these two data sets.
Concerning RSPO producers, the consultancy collected primary data from 634 estates and 165 oil mills across Indonesia and Malaysia, accounting for 58% of total certified fresh fruit bunches and crude palm oil.
When undertaking a LCA, all emissions and resource inputs are taken into account, from cradle-to-grave, explained 2.-0 LCA Consultants CEO Jannick Schmidt at RSPO’s RT17 event in Bangkok, Thailand. The assessment therefore covered the cultivation of fresh fruit bunches, production at the palm oil mill and palm kernel crusher plant, and at the refinery.
The ‘background system’ was also assessed, he explained, including data related to the production of fuels used in the process, and the production of fertilisers. Land use changes, which relate to nature conservation areas within producers’ land banks, were also considered. “So we take the full lifecycle of palm oil into account,” he said. The downstream life cycle stages were not included.
The results: greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity
The results indicated that RSPO certified palm oil had a 35% lower global warming impact compared to non-certified oil in 2016. The differences for GHG emissions are predominantly driven by the share of oil palm on peat, the assessment suggested, as well as the average drainage depth of peat, yields, and the share of palm oil mill effluent (POME) treated with biogas capture.
Further, the consultants found that CPO has a 20% lower nature occupation impact, which they attributed to differences in yield between the two production methods, as well as dedicated nature conservation in certified plantations.
The study also analysed how the impacts of nature conservation differ according to the type of land set aside. “On average, our results show that if you have one hectare of nature conservation, that would mitigate about one ton of GHG emissions,” explained Schmidt.
“But if you could manage to set aside peat soil, then you would save 33-42 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, per year. So the conservation of peat, at least when you are talking about GHG emissions, counts a lot more.”
Turning to respiratory inorganics, the consultants found that they were in fact 3% lower for non-certified production compared to RSPO-certified. This difference is mainly related to the intensity of agricultural practices associated with certified production, suggested 2.-0 LCA Consultants, citing higher fertiliser inputs, resulting in a higher nitrogen loss per unit of product.
“For other impact categories, certified palm oil performs better for respiratory organics and photochemical ozone impacts, while higher impacts are found for eutrophication and acidification,” the consultancy continued.
Leveraging these findings for good
Now that the environmental impact of certification can be measured, Schmidt said the findings could bring significant benefits to players across the industry.
Food and beverage brands, for example, will be able to leverage these results to demonstrate how many GHG emissions that are mitigating every year by committing to CPO, he said. And on the supply side, players can now document, ‘in real numbers’, that there is a more sustainable way of producing palm oil – particularly concerning GHG emissions and biodiversity, he continued.
The results could also be used as inputs for the next version of certification, Schmidt added, as well as help the certification body set environmental targets for suppliers. “My recommendation to the RSPO is that instead of only having targets for year uptake and the for the amount of [palm oil] certified…the RSPO can also set targets for reduction in GHG emissions and biodiversity impacts.”
Schmidt J and De Rosa M (2019). Comparative LCA of RSPO-certified and non-certified palm oil – Executive Summary. 2.-0 LCA consultants: https://lca-net.com/clubs/palm-oil/