How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate

Publication - November 7, 2007
Every year, 1.8 billion tonnes (Gt) of climate changing greenhousegas (GHG) emissions are released by the degradation andburning of Indonesia’s peatlands – 4% of global GHG emissionsfrom less than 0.1% of the land on earthThis report shows how, through growing demand for palm oil, theworld’s largest food, cosmetic and biofuel industries are drivingthe wholesale destruction of peatlands and rainforests. Thesecompanies include Unilever, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, whobetween them account for a significant volume of global palm oiluse, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Cooking the Climate

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Every year, 1.8 billion tonnes (Gt) of climate changing greenhousegas (GHG) emissions are released by the degradation andburning of Indonesia's peatlands – 4% of global GHG emissionsfrom less than 0.1% of the land on earth.

This report shows how, through growing demand for palm oil, theworld's largest food, cosmetic and biofuel industries are drivingthe wholesale destruction of peatlands and rainforests. Thesecompanies include Unilever, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, whobetween them account for a significant volume of global palm oiluse, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Overlaying satellite imagery of forest fires with maps indicating thelocations of the densest carbon stores in Indonesia, Greenpeaceresearchers have been able to pinpoint carbon 'hotspots'. Ourresearch has taken us to the Indonesian province of Riau on theisland of Sumatra, to document the current activities of thoseinvolved in the expansion of palm oil. These are the producers whotrade with Unilever, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, as well as manyof the other top names in the food, cosmetic and biofuel industries.

The area of peatland in Riau is tiny: just 4 million hectares,about the size of Taiwan or Switzerland. Yet Riau's peatlandsstore 14.6Gt of carbon – if these peatlands were destroyed, theresulting GHG emissions would be equivalent to one year's totalglobal emissions.

Unless efforts are made to halt forest and peatland destruction,emissions from these peatlands may trigger a 'climate bomb'.

Forests as ticking climate bombs

Forest ecosystems currently store about one and a half timesas much carbon as is present in the atmosphere. Withoutdrastic cuts in GHG emissions, climate change – which is inpart driven by forest destruction – may soon tip these carbonstores into sources of emissions. Resulting temperatureincrease could disrupt ecosystems in ways that provoke yetmore greenhouse emissions, potentially leading to furtheracceleration of climate change.

Conclusions from the world's leading climate scientists inthe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that large cuts in GHG emissions are needed rapidly.Time is desperately short. The greater the delay in realisingemissions reductions, the higher the financial, social andecological costs will be.

Indonesia's rainforests and peatlands in the political spotlight

Indonesia offers a critical example of why GHG emissions arisingfrom deforestation and land-use change need to be dealt with atthe international level, by governments and corporations.Indonesia holds the global record for GHG emissions throughdeforestation, putting it third behind the USA and China interms of total man-made GHG emissions. During the last 50years, over 74 million hectares of Indonesia's forests havebeen destroyed – logged, burned, degraded, pulped – and itsproducts shipped round the planet.

Unlike industrialised country (Annex I) signatories to the Kyotoclimate treaty, Indonesia – as a developing country – is not requiredto set a target to reduce its GHG emissions. Consequently,since the Kyoto Protocol provides no incentives for preventingthe destruction of tropical forests, the expansion of palm oil intocarbon-rich landscapes such as peatlands and rainforests makesshort-term economic sense but no ecological sense.

In December 2007, negotiating teams from governmentsaround the world will gather in Bali, Indonesia to thrash out anagreement that will ideally lead to an international plan to deliverdeep cuts in global GHG emissions, as an extension of thecurrent Kyoto climate treaty.

These climate negotiations are first steps toward internationalpolitical measures to tackle deforestation. Meanwhile, globalindustry continues business-as-usual, and is expanding intothe world's rainforests.

Palm oil's boom!

NASA's climate scientists warn that 'continued rapidgrowth of CO2 emissions and infrastructure for anotherdecade' may make halting high-risk increase in globaltemperatures 'impractical if not impossible'.

Num. pages: 86