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Biofuel-Harvesting Palm Oil Plantations Drive CO2 Levels Higher

Biofuels may cut down on CO2 emissions compared to petroleum, but the palm oil used to make them has the nasty effect of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

palm plant

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As worldwide demand for both food and biofuels increases, so does the the demand for palm oil, which can be used for both food and biofuel production. But while biofuels may cut down on CO2 emissions compared to petroleum, palm oil plantations have the nasty effect of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere–and the problem is only getting worse, according to a study from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the National University of Singapore.

The report, entitled Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm, identified and monitored the amount of land in Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra covered by mature palm oil trees using satellite-based mapping (Indonesia and Malaysia account for 87% of global palm oil production). The results are disheartening. Up to 6% of CO2-absorbing peatlands in the region were converted to palm oil plantations by the early 2000s, leading to a decline in biodiversity (16 species of birds in Sumatra alone) and the loss of carbon sequestration provided by peatlands in the area, which soak up 660,000 mg of carbon each year.

The issue won’t get better anytime soon–Indonesia plans to double palm oil production by 2020. But palm oil can be harvested sustainably, both by recycling fruit tree biomass waste into energy and by staying away from peatlands. The study explains:

Recent international negotiations on climate-change mitigation and forest protection have emphasized the diversion of future agricultural expansion to degraded lands. However, without a clear and transparent definition of degraded lands, any form of secondary vegetation, including cleared peatlands, will be exposed to future development risks, despite forest protection schemes such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation…Therefore, we argue that cleared peatlands must be distinguished from degraded lands and be accorded a high priority for conservation and forest restoration efforts.

In other words, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments need to hone their efforts on protecting peatlands from palm oil development or risk losing even more species and valuable sources of natural carbon sequestration.

[Photo: Dr. Lian Pin Koh]

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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