Saturday, November 22, 2014

Palm Oil Production Poses Problems for the Climate

Fires associated with clearing land for oil palm plantations in the Indonesian province of Riau release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and spread health-harming haze across the landscape. (Credit: Wakx/flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Palm oil — which appears in a dizzying amount of food and cosmetic products and is a feedstock for biofuel — poses many environmental problems.  It’s the largest driver of Indonesian deforestation, which destroys habitat and contributes to climate change.  And ponds of wastewater at palm oil refineries release immense amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Solutions to the environmental problems posed by palm production are complicated, partly because palm oil’s ubiquity, but also because alternatives lack many of the benefits of the versatile oil.  But they are out there.
It’s here, in the peat burning below the forests, where the greatest climate impact from palm production can be seen.  When forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, the area is usually burned, and most of Riau’s massive fires burn on peat — swampy layers of partially decayed vegetation that spreads up to 60 feet deep beneath most of the province’s forests.

Peatlands hold up to 28 times as much carbon as rainforests growing on mineral soil.
In 2010 Norway promised $1 billion to Indonesia to keep its forests standing, and the next year Yudhoyono pledged that by 2020, with international assistance, the nation would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent from its “business-as-usual” trajectory.  Last August Singapore began imposing fines of up to $2 million on local and foreign companies that contribute to the haze from fires.  The following month, Indonesia, after years of stalling, became the last of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ratify a treaty intended to reduce the smoke that has become a perennial strain on its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors.  Shortly afterward, at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York, 150 companies — including McDonalds, NestlĂ©, and Procter and Gamble — pledged to cut deforestation worldwide in half by 2020 and to eliminate it altogether by 2030.
Ultimately, however, laws, treaties, government agencies and incentives will have little impact without fundamental changes to how palm oil is produced and consumed.  And unfortunately, there are few viable alternatives to palm.
“There are benefits to palm oil which cannot be ignored,” Alan Townsend, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, told me before I traveled to Indonesia.  “Palm is one of the most productive crops on the planet, with the ability to grow in a remarkable range of places.  Couple that with large profit margins, an incredible diversity of uses for palm oil and a lack of economically competitive substitutes, and you can quickly see why the industry has grown so rapidly.”

In 2013 the world consumed 55 million metric tons of palm oil, nearly four times what it used 20 years earlier.  Indonesia and Malaysia satisfy 85 percent of the demand for the world’s most popular food oil.  In 1985 Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantations.  Twenty years later, they covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects plantations will cover at least 100,000 square miles.

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