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Promoting sustainable palm oil in China

A new project – ‘Sustainable Palm Oil Promoted in China’ – to promote the procurement of sustainable palm oil in China was recently launched the First Global Business of Biodiversity (GBOB) Symposium in London, under the UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue.

A new research programme to map how the UK uses imported palm oil was also announced at GBOB, by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman. The programme will exchange learning with the UK-China project.

Sustainable Palm Oil Promoted in China project team membersMembers of the UK-China project team visiting the Julong palm oil factory in Tianjin, China in July 2010

Why sustainable palm oil and why China?

China itself is not a producer of palm oil, so why should a project in China focus on sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil is the world’s most used vegetable oil. It is incredibly versatile and used in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and even biodiesel. It is also powering many of the emerging economies of south-east Asia: in Indonesia alone palm oil production employs 2 million people.

But palm oil also has devastating side effects. Palm oil plantations are destroying forests and peat lands and playing havoc with ecosystems and biodiversity. Deforestation is estimated to cost the world anything between $2 and 5 trillion dollars a year in lost services like water regulation and causes 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So while palm oil feeds economies, it’s also irrevocably damaging them. As demand for it grows, in Europe and in the burgeoning economies of India, China and the rest of the world, we will all start paying the unaffordable environmental costs.

We need to find a way to reap the benefits of palm oil while managing the costs. Environmental and development charities have been arguing the case for sustainable palm oil for years, although currently less than 4% of the global supply of palm oil is certified from sustainable sources.

China is currently the world’s largest importer of palm oil, accounting for around one third of all global trade, and is also a potential major producer of palm oil through off-shore investments in Africa and Asia etc. This small project, co-funded by Defra and DFID, and working with the China Chamber of Commerce, will help build the business rationale for sustainable palm oil in China.

The project will help develop policy recommendations for the Chinese government, industry associations and Chinese enterprises to encourage the switch to procurement of sustainable palm oil. The project may prove to be a valuable model for other growing economies.

Sharing learning with UK sustainable palm oil research

The UK-China project will exchange learning with the new UK research programme to map palm oil use.

The UK research will for the first time examine how palm oil is used by consumers in the UK. It will document how much we use, how much of that is sustainably sourced, and consider how changes can be made to lessen environmental damage.

In a speech to the Global Business and Biodiversity conference, minister Richard Benyon described the project:

“Working with businesses, we aim to map the palm oil supply chain to the UK, including what the public sector buys, and where from, to find out where we are using palm oil, what we are using it for, how we are sourcing it and how much is produced sustainably. Working with companies like yourselves and with NGOs, we will be using our findings to produce a plan to help shift Britain’s sourcing of palm oil to a sustainable footing.”

Announcing the project, Caroline Spelman explained its importance:

“Consumers and industry have the power to save rainforests and wildlife in areas like South East Asia. But, in the case of palm oil, we need to know more about our consumption in order to find solutions. We’re hoping to get these answers with the project starting next month which will map our use of palm oil.

“This coalition is striving to be the greenest government ever. That means considering our impact abroad as well as at home.”

For more information on the UK-China project or the Sustainable Development Dialogue, please contact Su Zhang, Programme Coordinator for the Sustainable Development Dialogue, at

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