Protecting high carbon stocks and high conservation values in palm oil – complementary or competing approaches?


The last two years have seen a rapid proliferation of sustainability commitments in palm oil. Alongside increasing numbers of producers committing to established certification schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), leading supply chain actors are pledging to go beyond certification and source “No deforestation, No peat, No exploitation” palm oil. These events are proof that business is responding to consumer demands for change. But some have raised concern the trend risks causing confusion and loss of momentum, as decision-makers ponder which route to sustainability they should pursue. The emergence of High Carbon Stock (HCS) assessment as a complement to High Conservation Value (HCV) approaches for mitigating impacts illustrates the opportunities and challenges presented by recent trends. How doHCS and HCV differ? Are they alternative or complementary tools? How does committing to one effectively safeguard the other?

I suggest that HCS and HCV share much more in common than they differ, and over time should be combined into a single, integrated, transparent assessment tool for mitigating impacts of palm oil.

“The two concepts are closely interrelated, suggesting they could be combined into a single, comprehensive assessment tool”

Since 2007, HCV has served as the key provision for protecting forests and biodiversity under the RSPOstandard. Where robustly applied, HCVhas markedly reduced impacts of certified plantations, reducing intact forest clearance and peat land development for new plantations. In some cases, however, HCV assessors have recommended large-scale deforestation and peatland development, despite clear indications of severe impacts. High profile cases of this have led some groups to question HCV as a tool for achieving sustainability, and push instead for adoption of HCS, a newer concept that offers stricter, more explicit forest protections.

HCS and HCV are often portrayed as alternatives, but this overlooks their many commonalities. Both require mapping of current forest cover and condition, ground surveys to verify mapping and record social and environmental values, and direct consultation with local stakeholders to determine go and no-go areas for development. Because HCS is designed to protect forests, whereas HCV aims to maintain critical values, the management recommendations made by each will sometimes differ. But even so, final decisions for no-go areas under the HCSapproach require cross-referencing to HCV, and reconciliation of recommendations once completed. The two concepts are, therefore, in principle and in practice closely interrelated, suggesting they could be combined into single, comprehensive assessment tool. How can this be achieved?

Possibilities for combining HCS and HCV are twofold. The first instance suggests formally integrating HCS within the HCVframework, such as under the banner of Environmental Services embodied in HCV4. The second possibility would require HCSland cover mapping as a robust preparatory step that feeds intoHCV assessment.

Requiring HCS mapping as an input to HCV would enable field verification surveys for HCS and HCV to be combined, improving data quality and reducing costs. HCS and HCV findings would then be combined and reconciled to delineate go and no-go areas, an approach already being tested by producers committed to both HCS and HCV protection.

Integrating HCV and HCV would also enable both to be governed by the multi-stakeholder HCV Resource Network,, to formalise definitions and decision rules, standardise methodologies, license assessors and ensure transparent reporting. This would require investment to expand the Resource Network’s capacity to govern both tools, but such investments would be less costly than establishing a separate governance structure for HCS.

To assure all stakeholders that improved HCV, strengthened byHCS, will function more effectively, the RSPO could increase transparency by encouraging disclosure of both HCS and HCVmaps as part of the RSPO’s New Plantings Procedure (NPP) announcement. Combined with online platforms to monitor deforestation, this would enable drawing attention to questionable practices with shorter time lags.

Arguably, the challenge ahead for integrating HCS and HCV is more political than technical, as different stakeholders groups promote the two concepts. HCS developed as part of campaigns for zero deforestation supply chains as an alternative to certification, whereas HCV is linked directly to certification. This means uniting HCS and HCV into a single, comprehensive tool requires putting aside differences on certification versus supply chain approaches, and working together toward the shared goal of mainstreaming robust, transparent, credible assessment tools demanded by the market.

Integrating HCS and HCV will be challenging, but it is necessary to minimise duplication, avoid confusion and capitalise on growing momentum to achieve reform.

Gary Paoli

Gary Paoli is director of research and project development at Daemeter Consulting, an independent consulting firm promoting sustainable development through responsible and equitable management of natural resources. Daemeter is one of the Support Organisations involved in the HCS Approach Steering Group