The climate change world runs on hypocrisy, from presidents and prime ministers to virtue-signalling billionaires and multinationals, and pious individuals. Saying one thing and doing another is the order of the day.
Among the outcomes of the Glasgow COP26 climate conference was the announcement of a commitment to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.” Australia was one of more than 140 countries that signed it.
The hypocrisy was dripping. Some of the signatory countries have no forests at all, and almost none have forests in danger of being cleared. Even Australia, which has plenty of forests, limits harvesting to renewable plantations. In fact, the Howard government’s commitment to the Kyoto protocol based on limiting land clearing could only be met by blocking farmers from clearing woody weeds.
This is also not the first commitment of its kind; deforestation has been on the climate change agenda for decades.
In 2005 the UN Forum on Forests committed to “reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide” by 2015. In 2008, 67 countries pledged to try and reach zero net deforestation by 2020. This was followed by the New York declaration on forests in 2014 which saw 200 countries commit to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030. All failed to meet their targets.
Developing countries mostly view such things as an opportunity to extort money from the developed world, while both developed and developing countries are notorious for making commitments and not keeping them.
There is actually a more appealing reason than climate change to retain as much native forest as possible. All forests, particularly rainforests, are home to a vast array of flora and fauna, much of which we don’t even know about yet. Once they are gone, there is no bringing them back. And it is mostly hypocrisy that prevents progress.
In a handful of countries in South America, South East Asia and Africa, forests are being cleared by poor farmers to run cattle or plant crops. After decades of hypocritical posturing, it has finally been acknowledged that the solution lies in helping farmers make a good living without needing to clear more land. Boycotts do nothing but hurt those who need the most help. Yet when solutions are available, hypocrisy intervenes.
An example of this is palm oil, which provides 40% of the world’s vegetable oil and is used in everything from shampoo to biscuits. Relative to other vegetable oils palm oil production is quite efficient, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. For the same amount of oil from crops like soybean, coconut, or sunflower, between 4 and 10 times more land is needed. Yet for years palm oil was subject to a boycott campaign because plantations were being expanded at the expense of forests.
In 2004, like many industries under attack from activists, the palm oil industry formed a Roundtable. A code of conduct was formulated that met with the approval of ‘good cop’ WWF, thus ensuring ‘bad cop’ Greenpeace left alone those farmers who were accredited.
Farmers wishing to become accredited had to meet certain ‘sustainability’ standards, including not clearing forest to plant more trees. But compliance increased their costs of production compared to farmers that were not certified, so all parties agreed this would be resolved by major users of palm oil only buying from certified producers.
That has not occurred. In 2020 about 20 percent of the palm oil produced globally in 2020 was certified. However, buyers only bought half of it as a premium product. The rest had to be sold as uncertified oil at lower prices. Although this 20 percent helped reduce deforestation from palm oil to a three-year low, the profits of certified farmers are reduced, uncertified farmers see no benefit in becoming certified, and there is continuing incentive to plant more palm trees.
Increasing yields from existing agricultural land is one of the great success stories of the last half-century. Known as the green revolution, it used technology such as crop chemicals, minimum tillage, plant breeding and genetic modification of crop varieties to vastly increase output and avoid the need for land clearing. But it was not applied to all crops; some are yet to benefit. It is likely palm oil yields and productivity can be increased several times over with sufficient research effort.
But that will take time and money. In the meantime, the opportunity to reward producers for adopting sustainable palm oil farming practices is being lost due to hypocrisy.
What is required is for the food manufacturers, other users, wholesalers and retailers, which have said they would buy certified palm oil, those that mingled with the great and good at COP26, and those that have adopted environmental aspirations such as net zero emissions, to do something of practical benefit for the environment.
If food retailers and manufacturers truly care about the environment, they need to put their money where their mouth is, quite literally. Words without action is not virtue. It’s hypocrisy.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
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