Sustainability expert Sir Jonathon Porritt on balancing prosperity and sustainability

  • Environment
  • Thursday, 27 Sep 2018

Forum for the Future is working with key oil palm plantation companies to improve the working conditions of their workers. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

His forte is in sustainable development and his job involves advising governments and corporations on the matter.

Sir Jonathon Porritt is co-founder of Forum for the Future, a global sustainability non-profit organisation founded in 1994.

He is an advisor to Prince Charles on green issues in his capacity as co-director of the Prince of Wales Business and Environ-ment Programme.

The Oxford graduate (Magdalen College) in modern languages is also an author with eight titles to his name.

Currently, Porritt serves as the Chancellor of Keele University, Britain. For the last seven years, he has served as sustainability advisor for Sime Darby, and currently, for Sime Darby Plantation.

In a recent one-to-one interview, he shares his thoughts on issues from balancing sustainability and prosperity, to the role of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

You have mentioned the need to use the window of opportunity to ensure sustainability, that we need to act fast within these 10 to 15 years. Can you elaborate, please?

The reality is that we have ignored so many of these (environmental) issues for so long that we now have to move a lot faster than we would have had to if we had acted in a timely and decisive way earlier. So we now have to play catch-up with these big issues that we have left for so long, like the impact on diversity, climate change and pollution. That means we don’t have an indefinite period of time to go on doing the rather inadequate little bit that we are doing at the moment. We have to do a lot more.

Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

What is the key to balancing sustainability and prosperity and does the current economic conditions affect these targets?

We are not about stopping people from looking into their economic well-being. The real issue is, what is the way in which we create growth? If we go on creating growth the way we are doing now, it’s very damaging to the physical environment and atmosphere, and people’s health, and that is really foolish. So what we have to do is to create wealth by not damaging the environment or (affecting people’s) health and stopping further impact on people and communities.

The Forum for the Future has been doing this work for 22 years, working with corporations, governments and civil societies.

We often bring them together in stakeholder coalitions to work together so they do not (work) in their own silos. The advice we are offering our corporate partners in particular is in how they use their enormous corporate muscle. They have big spend, employ very good people, reach millions through their products and services, and affect many communities directly. So it’s an issue of how they can handle all of those relationships with a much more positive outcome than is sometimes the case.

In Malaysia, our principal partner is Sime Darby and we are doing a lot of work on sustainable palm oil. It’s still a question of achieving economic objectives but doing it without those negative costs (to the environment and people).

A 2-megawatt solar farm in Kudat, Sabah. Malaysia has much potential to pursue solar power as a renewable energy source, says Porritt. Photo: Bernama

Ensuring sustainability also means moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. What is your advice to Malaysia in terms of this?

I think people are now coming to terms with why we have to move away from fossil fuels. And it is important to remind everybody just how urgent this is as we still burn an awful lot of coal, oil and gas because that’s the energy system we have been used to for many decades.

The problem is when we use them, they release greenhouse gases that cause the problem of climate change. We know that this problem is now moving much faster than we thought it was going to, and it’s already a very big problem. The whole world is experiencing extreme weather conditions that are a consequence of climate change that we have caused.

Here in Malaysia, there are real opportunities for a much more rapid acceleration and uptake of renewable energy. I am hoping that the urgency of this now will be something the new government will be much more mindful of. Other countries are moving very fast to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase renewable energy, particularly solar energy, wind power and the use of biomass in one form or another. And Malaysia has incredible resources in terms of sunshine and biomass.

You have found that young people today are more environmentally-conscious. How do you see them making waves of change?

For me, it’s very clear that young people now can see the future that awaits them. If we continue with the business-as-usual growth model, it will be an uncomfortable one. There will be more environmental problems and worsened pollution issues. For example, the use of plastics for packaging will triple over the course of the next 20 years. And a lot of that is already in our rivers, oceans and beaches. So, I am very confident that young people will not be as complacent as the generations before them. One reason is that in schools, they get a much better understanding of how important protecting the environment is.

Porritt says the use of plastics for packaging will triple over the next 20 years. Photo: AFP

Globally, only about 20% of traded palm oil is certified sustainable. What does this say about the whole effort so far in pushing for sustainable palm oil? When will we even reach 50%, for example?

We will reach 50% when the people who are buying palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia decide to use their purchasing power to buy the good stuff (certified sustainable palm oil). There will be a real moment of truth, and it’s important to stress that by 2020, a lot of the world’s biggest consumer companies that have made big claims about how they were going to sort out their problems with their palm oil supplies or deforestation-free supply chains, have still not done what they said they were going to do. And they are still not buying certified sustainable palm oil.

So there is a deep hypocrisy, which actually irritates me enormously, because there are a lot of people in the West who constantly berate the industry for failing to do this or that. Sometimes they need to look a little closer in terms of their own decisions. The real problem is the people who are buying it are not buying sustainable oil.

Regional palm oil buyers have cited the price of sustainable palm oil, lack of consumer awareness and demand for certified sustainable products as deterrents when sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). What are your comments on this?

This is just so unreasonable. On the one hand, everyone in the European countries and America is saying that you’ve got to produce palm oil without damaging the environment and people, and most big companies in Malaysia, through RSPO, have met those challenges.

And they have gone a long way to do so. Of course, not all the way, and I am still critical about a lot of things.

On the other hand, the same people who made those demands in the first place turn around and say, “We are not paying extra for that! Our consumers do not want to pay extra for that.”

There is this imbalance between the demand and the way the industry shares the responsibility. They need to talk with their consumers and explain why this is important.

How can RSPO further enhance its role in taking sustainable palm oil to another level?

There is a big conference coming up this year where RSPO will look at a revised set of principles and criteria and these are the kinds of standards that companies certified by RSPO have to achieve. And those standards have been updated over the years to make them more relevant and tougher.

So it is absolutely crucial that the RSPO agrees to those new standards because if they don’t, there is a real problem in terms of how people in developed world markets will see the world of the RSPO. And the RSPO is trying to do more about deforestation and social issues. There is quite an important upgrade in the requirement of companies when they get themselves certified.

We are on a journey towards this. I’ve said many times that the oil palm industry has moved further in 10 years than any other large agricultural commodity in the world. So for me, I have to look at this stuff relatively. I am not giving the palm oil industry a clean bill of health. There are tonnes of things that they still need to improve on.

One of the projects that we are involved in with Sime Darby and other large companies here and in Indonesia is looking at the working conditions of workers on plantations and how to improve them. The consequence, I think, will be that in two to three years, we will see significant improvements in the working conditions.

So (our work) is about right now, what can be done, how to make the industry deliver better for every stakeholder over a short period of time. And it’s a continuous effort to find new ways to do a better job of managing this palm oil asset.

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