Palm oil may sound like an exotic industrial product, but in fact it is extraordinarily close to our lives. Palm oil is used as vegetable oil in instant noodles, shortening, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream and all kinds of processed foods. It can also be found in cosmetics, toothpaste, and increasingly, biodiesel. From cooking oil to energy, palm oil is everywhere in our lives.
Unfortunately, palm oil’s popularity is spelling doom for Indonesia rainforests, which are home to a rich variety of wildlife, including Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, Javan rhinos, orangutans and the elusive clouded leopard.
Indonesia is losing its forests more rapidly than any other country on earth. The replacement of ancient forests with cash crops such as palm oil creates not only an ecological disaster but the large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases. In the last half century, over 74 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest – equivalent to an area twice the size of Germany – have been logged, burned, or degraded.
According to the UNEP, palm oil plantations are the leading cause behind the destruction of the priceless rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia. If no action is taken, palm oil demand is due to double from 2000 levels by 2030, and triple by 2050.
Palm Oil and its Impacts
The phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry spells disaster for local communities and biodiversity in Indonesia. As palm oil find more and more uses, companies are seizing more and more pristine forests to turn into plantations.
The Indonesian Palm Oil Research Institute (IOPRI) estimates that two-thirds of all currently productive oil palm plantations involved deforestation.
Within Indonesia, virtually all palm oil is currently sourced from the island of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island. According to World Bank estimates, between 1985 and 1997, 60% of the lowland rainforest of Kalimantan and Sumatra was destroyed, with the expansion of oil palm plantations being a major driver.
In 2005 Riau, part of Sumatra, was home to a quarter of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations, equivalent to 1.4 million hectares. A further 3 million hectares of peatland forests are earmarked for conversion over the next decade. Where once there was mostly forest, soon half of Riau will be covered in oil palms.
Biodiesel fueling palm oil expansion
From the EU to China, countries have committed to increase the use of biofuels, seen as an attractive quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By 2020, China expects biofuel to supply 15% of its fuel mix, while India wants biodiesel to make up 20% of its diesel by 2012.
Ironically, these attempts to reduce the impact of climate change could actually make things worse – clearing forests and draining and burning peatlands to grow palm oil will release more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.
Much of the current and projected palm oil expansion in Indonesia is taking place on forested peatlands. Peat stores huge amounts of carbon, so their destruction releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but are already responsible for 4 per cent of global emissions every year.
Nearly half of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained. Deforestation alone makes Indonesia the world’s third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter.
Sustainable Palm Oil – Does it Exist?
Industry efforts to improve palm oil have come through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It was set up in 2001 to establish clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil. Members include well-known companies such as Unilever, Cadbury’s and Nestlé, as well as palm oil traders such as Cargill and ADM. Together, these companies represent 40 per cent of global palm oil trade.
But forest destruction has not stopped. Many RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent. On top of this, the RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry.
Our investigations – detailed in our report Cooking The Climate – found evidence that RSPO members are still relying on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands for their plantations. One member – Duta Palma, an Indonesian palm oil refiner – has rights to establish plantations on land that theoretically is protected by law.
A moratorium on converting forest and peatland into oil palm plantations will provide breathing space for the development of long-term solutions. Restoring deforested and degraded peatland is another relatively cheap, cost-effective way to make huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia. And governments around the world have to recognise the role deforestation plays in climate change, providing funds to help countries with tropical forests to protect their resources as well as reducing their own CO2 emissions.
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