DISTINGUISHED environmentalist Sir Jonathon Porritt is more than a little kind to me. That’s saying a lot after I called him a ‘barista’ instead of a ‘barrister’. It’s obvious that he’s not about to serve me a cup of hot coffee at the Sime Darby Plantation in Ara Damansara where we’re ensconced comfortably in a cosy meeting room.
He winces slightly at my mispronunciation and smiles benevolently while I miserably contemplate sinking into the plush sofa. He’s British, of course, and takes my faux pas in his stride. After all, Britain is famed everywhere for her ‘unrelenting politeness’; it’s where the national reputation for good manners is treated as a badge of honour.
But that’s not the only vestige of respectability surrounding UK’s leading sustainability champion. His credentials are impressive. Porritt is an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development and had established Forum for the Future, UK’s leading sustainable development charity in 1996.
The Oxford graduate in modern languages is also an author with eight titles to his name, and is known as an eminent environmental thinker, having spent decades in the environmental field, covering activism, politics, public service, writing and taking on the role of advisor. One such role was advisor to Prince Charles on green issues in his capacity as co-director of the Prince of Wales Business and Environmental Programme.
Porritt is in Kuala Lumpur where he resurfaces every few months or so, serving as an independent sustainability advisor for the board of Sime Darby Plantation Berhad. Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? For the terms environmentalist or sustainable champion to be bandied together with palm oil which has been pilloried, as recent news would attest?
“Are you a sell-out?” I ask him bluntly. “Well, I’ve been called worse,” he responds, smiling wryly. “Well, I think it’s quite difficult for some people,” he adds, his British politeness surfacing as he tries to make sense of people’s antagonism. “I’ve always been identified with strong radical views about the environment.” So when he speaks up and seeks to represent a critical industry like the oil palm industry, “…well some people don’t like it,” he muses, shrugging his shoulders.
This doesn’t mean he’s selling out, he insists. Is it a sell-out to work with companies producing wheat? Is it a sell-out, he posits, to work with companies working in horticulture? “Palm oil is an important ingredient in thousands of products around the world. Just like any other crop in the world, you can either do it sustainably or you can do it unsustainably.”
FATE OF PALM OIL
The oil palm is blessed with many attributes that have helped it on its path to dominance. Its fruit contains the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. It can handle frying without spoiling, and blends well with other oils. Its combination of different types of fats and its consistency after refining make it a popular ingredient in packaged baked goods.
Its low production costs makes it cheaper than frying oils such as cottonseed or sunflower. It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. It’s increasingly used as a cheap raw material for biofuels, especially in the European Union, one of the biggest consumers of palm oil, consuming around 15 per cent of global production every year. Malaysia is the second largest producer of the fuel after Indonesia.
But to produce palm oil in large enough quantities to meet growing demand, farmers across Southeast Asia have been clearing huge swaths of biodiversity-rich tropical rainforest to make room for massive palm plantations. Today, palm oil production is somewhat blamed for being the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest. With that scenario in mind, the proliferation of oil palm plantations at the expense of the rainforests has aroused the EU’s concern.
In 2015, six EU countries namely Denmark, France, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Norway signed a declaration, stating themselves as supporters for 100 per cent sustainable palm oil in Europe and declared their intention to end illegal logging and deforestation by 2020. On the heels of that declaration, a report was tabled to the members of the European parliament (MEP) recommending a stop to deforestation, singling out oil palm as a major cause and driver of deforestation. The recommendations were passed and was later known as the EU Resolution (2017).
Following the endorsement, several action plans were lined up to stop deforestation. Firstly, they planned and proposed the ban of non-sustainable vegetable oils for biofuel by the year 2020. It was also proposed that only sustainable palm oil certified by a single EU-sustainability certification scheme would be allowed to enter the European Union after 2020. A move to completely ban food-based vegetable oils for biofuels by the year 2030 was proposed.
In January last year, the EU Parliament set to vote again and this time around, the recommendations were clear. Palm oil was singled out and palm oil-based biofuels will be completely banned by 2021. Decisions made by the MEPs in 2018 sent a very strong signal to palm oil producers in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The palm oil industry has a “really bad legacy”, Porritt admits. It has become synonymous with rainforest destruction. But he says the industry has moved a long way to address the issue in the last 10 years. "Palm oil isn’t the principal source of deforestation here. It might well once have been, but it isn't now," he claims.
The controversial decision is a huge concern for people who are working in the industry here. “The thing that irritates me is the fact that no one seems to want to distinguish between palm oil that’s produced well and not causing damage to the environment, and that which is still damaging the environment through deforestation,” he says.
The EU insists that palm oil has got to be produced without damaging the environment, and according to Porritt, most big companies in Malaysia through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – an NGO established to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders – have met those challenges.
WORKING FOR A SOLUTION
It’s a simple choice, he says. “Either we stop this industry altogether and find another alternative for palm oil, which would have massive negative impacts on the economy of palm oil-producing countries or we ensure that this industry meets that demand as responsibly and sustainably as possible.”
That means working with companies that share that vision for producing things sustainably which Porritt hopes would act as an encouragement to the rest of the industry. “This is my rationale, if you like, for continuing to do this kind of work,” he shares.
He reveals that he does similar work with a lot of other sectors that are controversial from a sustainable point of view. “I’ve just returned from New Zealand where we do a lot work with Air New Zealand,” he says, pointing out that the aviation industry has not done well, where evidence has shown that the industry is the most significant contributor to the tourism industry’s increasing impact on environmental sustainability.
“My question for the critics is, “So you’re never going to fly again?”” he asks wryly, adding: “Because if you’re not going to say that, you’re acknowledging that there’ll be planes in the air!” There’s a need to make industries in any sector, as responsible and sustainable as possible, he explains, quipping: “Actually it’s a lot harder with aviation than it is with palm oil!”
JOURNEY TO GREEN KNIGHTHOOD
Coming up with sustainable solutions to the world’s complex environmental concerns remains Porritt’s passion from the get-go but according to the 68-year-old, he never intended to be an environmentalist. “When I left Oxford, I thought I was going to become a lawyer,” he recalls, eyes twinkling. “And my life would’ve been very simple, you know. Make lots of money and do loads of interesting things with it!” So why didn’t he? “I got absolutely crushingly bored by the law!” he replies, chuckling, adding: “I went on to become a teacher.”
Porritt spent 10 years as a teacher but he soon grew concerned about the quality of lives led by his students living in a rather degraded environment back in London. “They lived near a huge motorway which meant that the air quality was poor while there were hardly any green areas about,” he recalls. “I’d take them out to the countryside to teach them about nature. I was an English teacher back then, but it occurred to me that most of these young people needed to be exposed to nature and green areas.”
It was tough for the children, he opines, adding that the conditions they were living in “…weren’t the kind of conditions you’d want your children to be brought up in. This had a big impact on me. How do you improve the local environment just to make for a better place to live in?”
That prompted Porritt to read up on the environment, and caused him to stumble upon a book called Blueprint for Survival that resulted in a pivotal career change. “The book simply said ‘look at where the world’s population is at now, and look at how much damage we’re already doing’” he recounts, before continuing: “I read the book in 1972, about 45 years ago. If we’re still doing the same kind of damage we’ve been doing all along, what will be the future of humankind?”
Porritt realised that the world would be in trouble if things aren’t changed. “So I got involved in green organisations to play a part in helping to protect the environment effectively,” he shares. He joined the Ecology Party (now known as the Green Party of England and Wales) in 1974 back when “…nobody cared enough to listen to green ideas!” he says, laughing heartily. “There weren’t many members back then. We could get together in a pub and set about the party’s business. It was great fun!”
In 1984 Porritt gave up teaching to become director of Friends of the Earth in Britain, which is part of an international network of environmental organisations in 74 countries. “That was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” he recollects fondly.
Today, Porritt continues to champion sustainability tirelessly and remains unapologetic about his desire to work with palm oil conglomerates to effect positive changes. “I remain a fierce critic of just how long it took for palm oil giants to sort out some of their legacy issues,” he insists. “But to go on demonising such a critically important industry makes no sense.”
We should work together on solutions that would allow the palm oil-exporting countries to continue thriving while at the same time ensuring that an equilibrium is being found to preserve natural key habitats, he says.
Seeking out solutions and working towards a sustainable future seem to be Porritt’s ‘cup of tea’, or ‘coffee’ I put forward, grinning, in reference to my earlier faux pas. He laughs heartily before sharing: “Scientists are looking at climate change and have noted the pattern of accelerated change that’s taking place all over the world, particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic.”
He explains that these researchers have posited that the window of opportunity to make changes for a more sustainable future is shrinking rapidly. “They’re saying we’ve got to start doing things in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Porritt.
He believes the time has come for industry players to do the same. “Every company in whatever business has to think about innovation and making the necessary changes for a sustainable future – including palm oil conglomerates. And that’s exactly what they’re setting out to do” he notes, before concluding: “Eventually we’ll learn to live sustainably on this planet, one way or the other, as we’re left with no choice.”