Palm oil

2010-07-02

in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Depending on exactly where it comes from, the oil extracted from the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) may be the worst fuel on Earth, insofar as it affects the climate. Once this oil is pressed from the fruit of the trees, it can be conversed into a form of biodiesel for use in internal combustion engines.

Nominally, biofuels are carbon neutral, as long as the same amount of biomass is being grown per unit time as fuel is being burned. The big problem with palm oil is that the plantations where it is produced (overwhelmingly in Indonesia and Malaysia) take the place of rainforests and peatlands that previously held massive amounts of carbon dioxide. As such, there is one gigantic burp of greenhouse gas when an area of forest becomes a palm oil plantation. This has been happening on an enormous scale, with the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanding from under 2,000 square kilometres in 1967 to over 30,000 square kilometres in 2000.

In addition to the climatic consequences, palm oil is a prime example of the food versus fuel debate. When food products are converted into vehicle fuels, they raise the price of those crops and increase the cost of food for those who depend on them. That effect is especially acute for the very poor, who spend a large proportion of their income on food. Palm oil is also found in 50% of all packaged supermarket products.

Quite probably, one appropriate approach would be for developed countries concerned about climate change to ban palm oil from former rainforest as an acceptable fuel. It is even worse than the very poor option of ethanol from corn, even before you take into account issues of international equity.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 10, 2010 at 5:19 pm

In defence of palm oil

SIR – Environmental groups seem to monopolise discourse on the environmental credentials of the palm oil industry (“The other oil spill”, June 26th), while the efforts of the Indonesian government and producers often go unnoticed.

Recently, Indonesia’s government announced a two-year moratorium on primary forest and peat land conversion as part of its commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Additionally, the government is set to implement the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil certification (ISPO) which, unlike the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil certification, will be mandatory. The ISPO will drastically improve the environmental standards of local palm oil companies.

As a developing country Indonesia is in dire need of a sustainable industry that is capable of creating jobs and alleviating poverty—the palm oil industry can do that. Under the government’s “Plasma System” large concession holders are required to set aside at least 20% of their land to local farmers and provide technical training to them. Many palm oil producers have gone further, allocating up to 40% of their land to local farmers and boosting health care, entrepreneurship and education. As the industry grows, these farmers and their families will enjoy better welfare. We understand and share the concerns of environmental groups and we would like to open a dialogue with them to find a solution.

Fadhil Hasan
Executive director
Indonesian Palm Oil Association
Jakarta

. November 12, 2010 at 10:09 am

Using fire to clear land has been illegal in Indonesia since 1995. But everywhere corruption and inefficiency undermine implementation of the law. And fire remains for many smallholders and big plantations the cheapest, quickest way of clearing logged land of rejected or overlooked trees and the undergrowth, thereby making it available for other uses—often, these days, to serve the booming palm-oil industry. In Riau, even beside main roads there are bleak, blackened landscapes, shrouded in white smoke, where the peat soil still smoulders under charred tree-stumps. Between them, infant oil palms are already growing.

The haze is an acute and chronic symptom of a disease even more serious for Indonesia and the world: Indonesia’s deforestation. In 1982 more than three-quarters of Riau was forested. Only about a quarter is now. But here too there are signs of hope. Stung by the criticism Indonesia receives as one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon—a consequence of its destruction of so much carbon-rich forest and peatland—its government is cleaning up its act. It plans to cut carbon emissions by 41% by 2020, so long as it receives the compensation from an inchoate scheme, known as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), whereby rich countries pay poorer ones to conserve trees.

. May 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm

AS THE heavens open, the canopy offers scant protection from the downpour, so the orang-utans tear leaves off the trees to make pathetic little umbrellas to hold over their heads. It is an endearingly human gesture but, as a means of keeping dry, almost entirely futile. And it is not just the rain that makes these creatures seem so helpless. The relentless destruction of their tropical-forest habitat has endangered their entire species.

In Borneo, in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, they can relax in a camp devoted to their welfare on the edge of the Tanjung Puting national park. But the park—415,000 hectares of protected tropical heath forest and peat forest—is surrounded by oil-palm plantations. These orang-utans are refugees from forests cleared to make way for the plantations. Much as people like the creatures, and devotedly as conservationists work, the park is not enough to stem their remorseless decline. There is too much money in palm oil, as well as timber, coal, gold, zircon and the forest’s other vegetable and mineral riches.

Yet prospects for the orang-utans have recently looked up. Climate-change fears have drawn attention to the work forests do to sustain not just wildlife but the planet itself. The outlines of a scheme under which developing countries would be paid not to cut down trees has been agreed. Indonesia, for example, chafes at its reputation as the world’s third-biggest emitter of carbon (a ranking it disputes). It has promised to cut its emissions by 26% by 2020 or, if promised foreign cash actually materialises, by 41%. It will achieve this in large measure by reducing deforestation.

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