BBC’s Roger Harrabin recently reported on MPs considering to subsidize biofuels for power stations. See his reports here and here. This past Wednesday, they did agree on new payments for renewable energy, including the use of palm oil for burning as a bio liquid.
I was appalled with this decision, but can understand why confusion may arise as to why using palm oil as a biofuel might not be as good of an idea as some may think. Therefore, the following paragraphs will give you some idea of the problems which accompany our growing demand for palm oil. I have consciously tried to de-sciencify (you know what I mean!) the language a bit, but if you want some more in-depth information take a look at the references at the bottom of the page.
Palm oil: the basics
Oil palm, Elaei guineensis, is one of the world’s fastest increasing crops1 and is grown in tropical areas with high-rainfall and low-lying geographical characteristics: zones which are also naturally occupied by tropical forests1. When it is grown in plantations, oil palm produces 3-8 times more oil per given area than any other tropical or temperate crop2. Palm oil is used in food, personal care and a wide variety of other consumer products3. Furthermore, the cost of palm oil is significantly cheaper than other oils such as rapeseed, making it a more attractive candidate for biofuel production4.
Malaysia and Indonesia together produce more than 80% of all palm oil, while also holding more than 80% of Southeast Asia’s remaining primary forests1. Indonesia has seen a 2100% increase in the land area covered by oil palm since the early 1980’s2 and since 2005 the country has been the world’s largest and most rapidly growing producer of palm oil2.
Can using palm oil as a biofuel help us mitigate the effects of climate change?
There is a rising demand for vegetable oils and biofuels, which will also drive an increase in demand for palm oil in the future1. Global palm oil production increases 9% annually, and this is driven primarily by biofuel markets in the EU and US, and food demand in Indonesia, India and China1,2. Indonesia has recently announced plans to double oil-palm production by 20206.
While palm oil production is a major contributor to Indonesia’s economy, bad practices have led to high ecological and social costs which include the rapid clearing of bio diverse forests, haze from forest fires which are used to clear plantations causing serious health problems, and conflicts caused by disregard of local communities’ rights and interests4.
The current use of South Asian palm oil as a biofuel is far from climate neutral. Estimates suggest that by using palm oil as a biofuel, there is a net increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions7: you are doing more harm than good!
Lastly, approximately 27% of concessions for new pam oil plantations are on tropical peat land rainforests8. When you convert peat land forests to palm oil plantations, you have to drain the peat. This leads to an increase in CO2 emissions as the peat starts to decompose as it is not submerged under water and comes into contact with the air. CO2 can continue to be released from peat for up to 120 years8. Converting these forests to oil palm plantations to be used for biofuel production, taking into account the aforementioned, causes a biofuel carbon debt which would take over 840 years to repay8. In other words, clearing carbon-rich habitats such as peat lands for biofuel production causes an increase of CO2 emissions for decades or centuries compared to emissions that would be caused by using fossil fuels8.
Deforestation and species survival
While it is difficult to exactly quantify the extent of deforestation which is directly caused by oil palm, due to a lack of reliable data on land-cover change and the complexity of deforestation drivers1, it has been estimated that over 50% of the oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia since 1990 has happened at the expense of forests6,2. There is a direct relationship between the growth of palm oil estates and deforestation in these two countries2. Therefore, the expanse of palm oil plantations is considered a major driver of tropical deforestation.
Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) is a major oil palm expansion frontier, however also holds a significant remainder of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity1,3. The conversion of lowland forest to palm oil plantations is a serious threat to orang-utans6 and is now seen as the larger threat to the survival of this species versus industrial logging3. The orang-utan directly competes for the limited lowland terrain which is also preferred for palm oil production3. For these apes to survive, plantations need to be only established on deforested and heavily degraded lands9. But as convertible pre-existing croplands and degraded lands become limited or more expensive, larger proportions of oil palm expansion will involve deforestation3.
“The orang-utan is a magnificent creature and one of our closest relatives. Imagine if it became a symbol of extinction.”10
Read more about the palm oil and orang-utan conflict here. Palm oil expansion is not only endangering the orang-utan, but also other iconic species such as the Sumatran Tiger, Asian Rhinoceros and Pygmy Elephant.
Future palm oil expansion has to be managed in a way to avoid further deforestation and substantial biodiversity losses1. If fundamental changes are not made to the way oil palm development is implemented in Indonesia, further expansions of the crop will undoubtedly have severe adverse impacts on the remaining forest cover11 and biodiversity.
The UK government says biofuels are needed to help keep the lights on and to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. There is evidence that palm oil emits more carbon dioxide than it saves. It seems that the UK is merely concerned with its own isolated country emissions and is not considering the whole lifetime emissions caused by its policies. Moving the problem and source of emissions into another country does not decrease your responsibility, and decreasing net global greenhouse gas emissions should still be the ultimate goal. We need to start thinking as citizens of a shared earth rather than irresponsibly detaching ourselves from the bigger issue at hand.
Sign an online petition here against palm oil power stations in Bristol and the UK.
- How your fuel bills are subsidising deforestation (theecologist.org)
- Modified Palm Oil :Good or Bad? (freetobemetoo.wordpress.com)
- The Perils of Palm Oil (familysurvivalprotocol.com)
- Say No to Palm Oil (saynotopalmoil.com)
- Green The Film (greenthefilm.com)
- Fitzherbert EB, Struebig MJ, Morel A, Danielsen F, Bruhl CA, Donald PF and Phalan B (2008). How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23 (10): 538-545. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534708002528
- Sheil D, Casson A, Meijaard E, van Noordwijk M, Gaskell J, Sundarland-Groves J, Wertz K and Kanninen M (2009). The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia: what do we know and what do we need to know? CIFOR Occasional Paper No. 51. Available online at: http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/20103165629.html;jsessionid=D9D1F6684E65CC35300AFD5D7370A8FF?gitCommit=4.13.20-5-ga6ad01a
- Nantha HS and Tisdell C (2009). The orang-utan-oil palm conflict: economic constraints and opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity Conservation 18:487-502. Available online at: http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/55318/2/WP%20152.pdf
- Ardiansyah F (2006). Realising Sustainable Oil Palm Development in Indonesia- Challenges and Opportunities. WWF-Indonesia. Available online at:: http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wwfpaperrealisingsustpalmoil.pdf
- Tan KT, Lee KT, Mohamed AR and Bhatia S (2009). Palm oil: Addressing issues and towards sustainable development. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 13(2): 420-427. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032107001360
- Koh LP, Miettinen J, Liew SC and Ghazoul J (2011). Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm. PNAS 108 (12): 5127-5132. Available online at: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/12/5127.short?cited-by=yes&legid=pnas;108/12/5127#cited-by
- Reijnders L and Huijbregts MAJ (2008). Palm oil and the emissions of carbon-based greenhouse gases. Journal of Cleaner Production 16 (4): 477-482. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652606003593
- Fargione J, Hill J, Tilman D, Polasky S and Hawthorne P (2008). Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt. Science 319 (5867): 1235-1238. Available online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5867/1235.full
- Meijaard E and Wich SA (2007). Putting orang-utan population trends into perspective. Current Biology 17:R540. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982207013942
- Commitante R, Husson S, Morrogh-Bernard H and Chivers DJ (2003). Where the wild things are not- the plight of the wild orang-utan. Biologist 50 (2): 75-80. Available online at: http://www.outrop.com/uploads/7/2/4/9/7249041/commitante_et_al._2003-_where_the_wild_things_are_not.pdf
- Casson A (1999). The Hesitant Boom: Indonesia’s Oil Palm Sub-Sector in an Era of Economic Crisis and Political Change. Program on the Underlying Causes of Deforestation, Bogor Indonesia, Centre for International Forestry Research. Available online at: http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/casson.pdf