Palm Oil Massive Source of Carbon Dioxide

Expanding production of palm oil, a common ingredient in processed foods, soaps and personal care products, is driving rainforest destruction and massive carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new study by Yale and Stanford researchers.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that deforestation for the development of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo is becoming a globally significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Plantation expansion is projected to pump more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020, an amount greater than all of Canada’s current fossil fuel emissions.

Indonesia is the leading producer of palm oil and palm kernel oil, which together account for more than 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil use and can be used for biodiesel. Most of Indonesia’s oil palm plantation expansion is occurring on the island of Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, which occupies a land area nearly the size California and Florida combined. Plantation leases, covering 32 percent of Kalimantan’s lowlands outside of protected areas, represent a major land bank that is slated for development over the next decade, according to the study.

In 2010 alone, land-clearing for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, an amount equivalent to annual emissions from 28 million vehicles.

Home to the world’s third-largest tropical forest area, Indonesia is also one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, due to rapid loss of carbon-rich forests and peatlands. Since 1990, development of oil palm plantations has cleared about 16,000 square kilometers of Kalimantan’s primary and logged forested lands, an area about the size of Hawaii. This accounts for 60 percent of Kalimantan’s total forest cover loss in that time, according to the study’s authors.

“Despite contentious debate over the types and uses of lands slated for oil palm plantations, the sector has grown rapidly over the past 20 years,” said project leader Lisa Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. By combining field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images, the study evaluated lands targeted for plantations and documented their carbon emissions when converted to oil palm.

The study’s researchers generated the first comprehensive maps of oil palm plantation expansion from 1990 to 2010. Using new classification technology developed by study co-author Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, the researchers quantified the types of land cleared for oil palm plantations, as well as carbon emissions and sequestration from oil palm agriculture.

“A major breakthrough occurred when we were able to discern not only forests and non-forested lands, but also logged forests, as well as mosaics of rice fields, rubber stands, fruit gardens and mature secondary forests used by smallholder farmers for their livelihoods,” said Kimberly Carlson, a Yale doctoral student and lead author of the study. “With this information, we were able to develop robust carbon bookkeeping accounts to quantify carbon emissions from oil palm development.”

The research team gathered oil palm land lease records during interviews with local and regional governmental agencies. These records identify locations that have received approval and are allocated to oil palm companies. The total allocated leases spanned about 120,000 square kilometers, an area slightly smaller than Greece. Most leases in the study occupied more than 100 square kilometers, an area slightly larger than Manhattan.

Using these leases in combination with land cover maps, the team estimated future land-clearing and carbon emissions from plantations. Eighty percent of leases remained unplanted in 2010. If all of these leases were developed, more than a third of Kalimantan’s lowlands would be planted with oil palm by 2020.

The research study, “Carbon Emissions from Forest Conversion by Kalimantan Oil Palm Plantations,” was supported by the NASA Land Cover/Land-Use Change Program, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Santa Fe Institute and the National Science Foundation.

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4 thoughts on “Palm Oil Massive Source of Carbon Dioxide”

  1. On the bright side, it is true that palm oil has contributed to economic well-being in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and other countries that produce it and no one denies that.

    On a balanced view, we should know the dark side as well, which is what conscientious people are fighting against. Leave alone the destruction of rainforests and the habitat of orangutans, piggy elephants, biodiverstity and issues of paraquat.

    From climate change point of view palm oil production is very damaging to the environment at present releasing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere yearly. This is more than the carbon dioxide released from the coal fired power plants in these countries.

    The farmers, planters, agriculturists and small holders work hard to bring palm oil on the table, however, in contrast the palm oil mills in the supply chain cause all the havoc. The solution to climate change damage lies at the palm oil mills. The mills should stop considering the 74% biomass by-product remaining after extracting palm oil and palm kernels in the palm oil production process at the mill as waste material. It contain massive amount of clean energy!

    Technologies and means are readily available to harness this energy to displace fossil fuel elsewhere outside the mill thereby mitigating the climate change damage by reducing the carbon footprint. The sad part is that the will to adopt is wanting in the palm oil milling industry.

    Rightfully, it’s the palm oil mill that attention should be in the focus.

    The increased production of palm oil in recent years necessitates in large quantities of it being converted to biodiesel to absorb the supply. In this scenario, where the biodiesel is meant to displace petroleum diesel to reduce carbon emissions, the carbon footprint of palm oil comes into greater focus.

    For interesting read browse:

    Yours sincerely,

    Climate change is ‘an immediate and growing threat.’
    No stone should be left unturned to mitigate GHG and climate change.

  2. The study may be valid but irrelevant to the question of global CO2 increase. Palm is just one source of oil for food and to a lesser extent, industrial products.

    What is relevant is whether or not production of food substitutes would generate and/or absorb more or less CO2, for example fats from animal sources, oil from soya beans or sunflowers, etc.

    Multiple factors influence the choice of fats or oils in the diet. But the mere fact that a shortage of one source will drive up the prices of other sources is evidence of substitution among the sources of fats and oils.

    If some more expensive source of oil for food can be shown to cause a lower net increase in CO2, it would remain to be shown whether or not the difference in net CO2 generation has a cost that is greater than the price difference.

    Possibly there is a net advantage to the world in producing more soya oil and less palm oil, but we are far from being certain that this is true. We are even further from being certain that switching from palm to some other land use would have a net economic advantage to mankind.

    Studies such as these may be useful, but are no guide to policy. In the countries that produce palm oil, there are better and cheaper ways to improve the environment, such as by better waste management (garbage and human waste).

    Focusing on CO2 brings tunnel vision to environmentalism. The risk is that we will fail to gain certain benefits because we are chasing uncertain benefits.

  3. This presentation does not take into account the amount of C02 absorbed by a palm tree used for the production of the oil, nor the amout of carbon contained in this product. This is not a fair picture. How does the balance of C02 per year work out when the amount of C02 absorbed is included?

    The losses to the rain forest affect much more than the trees themselves. No mention is made of the losses in the conservation of orangutang apes, our closest and most intelligent fore-bearer.

  4. This study is not worth the paper it is written on as it was cleverly designed to study only high-yield cultivation of oil palm to the exclusion of competing edible oilseed crops and is fatally flawed for 2 reasons:

    First, the study uses high resolution satellite imagery to evaluate carbon emission for lands “targeted for palm oil plantations. Indonesia’s slash and burn methods of land clearing which would account for the bulk of any visible and verifiable pollutants/carbon emission is largely ignored and not even mentioned in the study!

    Secondly, in our view, Prof Curran and her team conveniently used the fact that only 20 per cent of the palm oil land is cultivated to extrapolate and manipulate the results. Any calculation of potential carbon emission resulting from future cultivation of the remaining 80% land remains pure conjecture at least so long as slash and burn pollutants are not factored into the calculation!

    In singling out palm oil and only palm oil to measure carbon emission to the exclusion of other edible oilseed crops, the researchers have ensured a selectively skewed report!

    For the study to have any legitimacy, it has to be designed to include competing edible oil crops such as soy, rapeseed, corn and sunflower. In the interest of true scientific impartiality and integrity it would have been imperative to consider how these competing crops, including palm oil would compare in the “destruction” of virgin tropical rainforests. The dominant scientific standards for scientific studies of this nature would require that alternatives be included for a truly legitimate and authoritative picture to emerge.

    As things stand, we can only postulate as to the reasons for the selective exclusion of other edible oilseeds from the study. Could it be that the researchers know that the other oilseeds would fare even worse than palm oil if they were to be included in the study? Consider this. If a competing edible oilseed like soy was planted instead of palm oil, 10 times more land would have to be cleared as palm oil with its current yield of 4-5 metric tons per hectare already exceeds soy by a multiple of ten! In fact, best in class plantations are already producing 8 metric tons and current R&D points to a potential yield of 20 metric tons per hectare!

    Logically, this means that palm oil requires far less land to produce the same amount of oil as its competitors. The fact that palm oil is grown on only 0.23% of the world’s agricultural land and yet produce 30% of global edible oil output should clue in any objective observer as to the real reasons for the strange assault on probably the most benign edible oilseed crop, environmentally speaking!

    Italian civil libertarian group, Libertiamo have blown the cover of the planners and perpetrators of these campaigns! Says Libertiamo, these campaigns are “funded by the Office of the Environment Directorate of the European Commission (EC) ostensibly to improve environmental practices in developing countries”. In reality, the millions of Euros poured into these palm oil campaigns, noted Libertiamo, are designed to protect the EU’s own indigenous edible oilseed industries like rapeseed and sunflower which are hapless in the face of and unable to compete with the hyper yielding palm oil! To make matters worse, the EC is aware that the anti-palm oil campaigns are based almost entirely on “manufactured and false evidence”!

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