A Grim Portrait of Palm Oil Emissions

Source: By JOANNA M. FOSTER, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A burned stump in what was formerly a dense forest but was cleared for palm oil production in West Kalimantan Province in Indonesia.

Associated Press. A burned stump in what was formerly a dense forest but was cleared for palm oil production in West Kalimantan Province in Indonesia.

Indonesia ranks right behind the United States and China in the lineup of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters. It’s not because of smokestacks or freeways, but massive deforestation starting in the 1990s — driven In large part by the expansion of plantations for palm oil, an edible vegetable oil used in cookies, crackers, soap and European diesel fuel.

In January, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed finding that biofuels derived from palm oil feedstocks failed to meet the standards set by the agency’s 2007 renewable fuels mandate. While they were found to have lower life-cycle emissions than conventional gasoline and diesel, palm oil came up short of the 20 percent reduction in related emissions that is required for inclusion in the new biofuel blends

A public comment period on the finding ended last week after being extended by two months to accommodate the deluge of feedback. Many of the comments submitted came from the palm oil industry, which asserts that the E.P.A.’s estimates of palm oil-related emissions are seriously exaggerated.

Yet there is growing evidence that, if anything, the E.P.A.’s life-cycle emissions calculations for palm oil. were too conservative.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used socioeconomic surveys, high-resolution satellite imagery and carbon mapping to plot past and future patterns of land conversion for a representative region in Indonesia, the Ketapang district of West Kalimantan Province in Borneo.

The researchers found that about two-thirds of the land outside protected areas in the study region are now leased to oil palm companies. If these conceded lands are converted to palm-fruit plantations at current expansion rates, one-third of the land in the area will be growing palms and intact forests will shrink to less than 4 percent of land cover by 2020.

One of the most striking trends, in terms of emissions, was a shift toward the development of carbon-dense peatlands for palm oil production, the researchers found. Peatland soils store significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Their study said that by 2008, 70 percent of new plantations were being developed on peatlands; it predicted that up to 90 percent of emissions from palm oil plantations will come from peatlands by 2020.

Recognizing the climate dangers posed by the draining of peatlands for cultivation, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a moratorium on the granting of new palm oil concessions in peatlands last year. This does nothing, however, to prevent development on previously allocated leases on peatlands, which make up an estimated 61 percent of all as-yet undeveloped concessions.

Currently, half of all palm oil in the study area is being grown on peatlands, according to the study, a number that sharply contrasts with the E.P.A.’s estimate of only 13 percent for all of Indonesia.

Kimberly Carlson, a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a co-author of the study, suggested that the outlook was pretty bleak. She said that while she hoped that more palm oil producers would become certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil — certified Kalimantan palm oil comprises less than 5 percent of Indonesian palm oil production — it was important that laws already on the books be enforced.

“We could talk about new protections and conservation schemes, but there are already laws on the books protecting against the development of peatlands that are more than three meters deep and laws against burning to clear land for palm oil,” she said. “But they are not enforced. We do need more protections, but a good place to start would be enforcing the rules that already exist.”

Ms. Carlson also drew attention to the impact of palm oil production on local communities.

“This isn’t just a story of carbon and forests,” she said. “There are people who live here and are trying to make a living who are seriously affected by the palm oil industries’ land grabs.”