Research on palm oil and biofuels

Page - February 23, 2011
According to recent scientific research, biodiesel produced from palm oil has a negative overall environmental impact and a negative greenhouse gas balance. Exact estimations in different studies and research projects on the negative climate effects vary depending on the soil where the raw material is produced. The general conclusion of different studies however is that first generation biofuels, to which palm oil diesel belongs to, do not help in reducing the emissions. On the contrary, they increase the CO2 emissions either directly or indirectly.

Neste Oil claims palm oil diesel is a solution to climate change. This is not correct. The biofuels currently available are largely based on oil seeds and produced from crops such as soy, palm oil and rapeseed. A wealth of research is clear in showing that these first generation biofuels are not a solution to the climate crisis.
Growing the crops causes direct and indirect land use changes that cause emissions which in many cases are equal to or even greater than those from fossil fuels.

Negative climate impacts of biofuels

 

More than 200 scientists and economists with Ph.D.s and expertise related to climate, energy, and land use signed on to the International Scientists and Economists Statement on Biofuels and Land Use to urge the European Commission to recognize and account for indirect land use change impacts as a part of the lifecycle analyses of heat-trapping emissions from biofuels. Many of the signers of the International letter were part of letters to the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) and the California Air Resources Board (PDF) arguing that these bodies should include the impacts of indirect land use change emissions in biofuels policies for the United States and California. In both of casesthe final regulations accounted for these indirect emissions.

When land used for food or feed production is turned over to growing biofuel crops, agriculture has to expand elsewhere. This often results in new deforestation and destruction of other ecosystems, particularly in tropical regions in the developing world.

The resulting heat-trapping emissions from clearing new land can be significant and may outweigh any emissions savings from the use of biofuels.

Numerous scientific studies have warned about the unintended climate consequences of the indirect land use changes associated with increased demand for biofuels and the need to address the issue by changing existing biofuel policies.

This study analyses the likely impacts on land use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of biofuel use by 2020, as projected in recently published National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) in 23 EU member states. The analysis includes evidence on size and impacts of ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) resulting from biofuel use.

Driving to Destruction

Executive summary: It is the most comprehensive study to date to quantify these effects. Previous attempts were not based on projections from NREAPs and in most cases excluded the effects of indirect land use change. The assessment comes at a key time for EU biofuel policy, with the European Commission due to report on how to address and minimise these emissions by the end of this year.

The study reveals that the EU’s plans for biofuels will result in the conversion of up to 69 000 square kilometres (km2) of land to agricultural use due to ILUC. This will potentially put forests, other natural ecosystems, and poor communities at risk. Land conversion on such a scale will lead to the release of carbon emissions from
vegetation and soil, making biofuels more damaging to the climate than the fossil fuels they are designed to replace.

http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/en/Publications/2010/driving-to-destruction-08-11-101/

A research from International Food Policy Institute, which concludes that with current land-based feedstocks

biofuels cause emissions which in many cases are greater than those from fossil fuels. According to the research the land use impacts and GHG emissions can be vary severe. - D. Laborde, International Food Policy Institute IFPRI: Assessing the Land Use Change Consequences of European Biofuel Policies. Final Report. October
2011.

A report from European Commission Joint Research Centre JRC compares the land use and climate emission impacts of differents feedstocks used for biofuel production. - R. Edwards, D. Mulligan and L. Marelli, European Commission Joint Research Centre JRC: Indirect Land Use Change from increased biofuels demand.
Comparison of models and results for marginal biofuels production from different feedstocks
, 2010.

The report assesses the scientific literature on the potential role of renewable energy in the mitigation of climate change for policymakers, the private sector, academic researchers and civil society. It covers six renewable energy sources –including bioenergy – as well as their integration into present and future energy
systems. It considers the environmental and social consequences associated with the deployment of these technologies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). - Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN). Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC. 2011. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

- U.R.Fritsche with contributions from K.Hennenberg and K.Hünecke. Sustainability Standards for internationally traded Biomass. The “iLUC Factor” as a Means to Hedge Risks of GHG Emissions from Indirect Land Use Change. Working Paper. July 2010. Institute for Applied Ecology Öko-Institut e.V.

- P.Lamers et al. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 15 (2011) 2655-2676. International Biofuels Trade – A Review of past Developments in the in the liquid biofuel market.

- Koen P.Overmars. Environmental Science & Policy 14 (2011) 248-257. Indirect land use change emissions related to EU biofuel consumption: an analysis based on historical data.

The negative greenhouse gas balance of palm oil diesel

According to an EU-report, the costs and problems of food-based 2nd generation biofuels outweight the benefits.

The only major biofuels which we can say are likely to save greenhouse gas (considering indirect effects) are bioethanol from sugar cane from Brazil, compressed biogas and second generation biofuels. For 1 st  generation biofuels made in EU it is clear that the overall indirect emissions are potentially much higher than the direct ones.

Certification schemes help, but cannot prevent indirect emissions.

The indirect effect on tropical peatlands is critical.

…if  roughly    2.4%  of biodiesel  comes  directly  or  indirectly  from  palm  oil  grown  on  peatland,  the  GHG savings from EU biodiesel are cancelled out.

European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008, Biofuels in the European Context: Facts and Uncertainties [pdf]

The results (...) show that a 10% target for biofuels will contribute to global land conversion, although because of the criteria not directly for biofuels for Europe. If it indirectly drives towards the conversion of land and only about half of this land would be permanent grassland or lightly forested area, then the positive effect of the biofuels on GHG emissions would already have been undone.

The analysis (…) shows there is a need for extra land to produce biofuels globally. To comply with European criteria, the newly converted land outside the EU is not likely to be used for biofuels for Europe, but for exports to other nations, domestic use or for the cultivation of feed and food. Indirectly, the resulting soil emissions can be related to biofuel production for Europe, making the overall impact of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions likely to be negative ...

Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency 2008. MNP, 2008. Local and global consequences of the EU renewable directive for biofuels.

According to Professor Florian Siegert of Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany, who is studying land cover change in Southeast Asia, the large increase in area of oil palm projected to take place in coming years to satisfy the biofuels market will release much more CO2 emissions than the fossil fuel it is supposed to replace (up to 30 times more depending upon management of individual plantations). The emissions associated with palm oil plantations growing on thick tropical peat are particularly massive. In Indonesia it is estimated that producing 1 tonne of palm oil on peatland will cause emissions of between 15 and 70 tonnes of CO2 over the life cycle of 25 years as a result of forest conversion, peat decomposition and emission from fires associated with land clearance. The range of emission values is so large because oil palm fruit harvest can be much lower on nutrient poor and poorly drained peat soils. Peat swamp forests are the only major land area not yet developed in Southeast Asia, but increased demand for palm oil and pulp for paper is already leading to accelerated conversion of peat swamp forests into plantations.

3.12.2007 Science Centric: New data analysis conclusive about release of carbon dioxide from peatland

According to Land Clearing and Carbon Debt – study, converting tropical rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia to palm biodiesel would result in a biofuel carbon debt that would take 86 – 840 years to repay. Until then, producing and using palm biodiesel from this land would cause greater GHG release than would refining and using an energy-equivalent amount of normal fossil petroleum diesel.

Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.

Our analyses suggest that biofuels, if produced on converted land, could, for long periods of time, be much greater net emitters of greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels that they typically displace. All but two, sugarcane ethanol and soybean biodiesel on Cerrado, would generate greater GHG emissions for at least half a century, with several forms of biofuel production from land conversion doing so for centuries. At least for current or developing biofuel technologies, any strategy to reduce GHG emissions that causes land conversion from native ecosystems to cropland is likely to be counterproductive.

Our results demonstrate that the net effect of biofuel production via clearing of carbon-rich habitats is to increase CO2 emissions for decades or centuries relative to fossil fuel use.


Fargione J, Hill J, … Hawthorne P. 2008. Sciencexpress 7 February 2008
Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt

Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate –report states that it will take 75 – 600 years to compensate the emissions from forest and peatland clearance if palm oil is used for production of biodiesel.

Our results suggest it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through initial forest conversion, depending on how the forest was cleared. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years. With an average annual production of 3.7 t/ha of crude palm oil (...) and estimated emissions during biofuel production and transportation of 1.23 t CO2 equivalents per ton of biofuel (...), we estimated that the production and use of palm-oil biofuel from land that used to be rainforest would lead to greater CO2 release than would refining and using an energy-equivalent amount of fossil fuel for 75 years (...). If the forest vegetation was cleared with fire, which is often the case in Indonesia (...) recapture of this carbon would take 93 years. If the original habitat was peatland (...), we calculated that recapture of the lost carbon would take 692 years.

Danielsen, F., Beukema, H., … Donald, P.F., et al.
Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate. Conservation Biology, November 2008


 ..the emissions cost of liquid biofuels exceeds that of fossil fuels. Moreover, large areas of land would be needed to make significant quantities of fuel. A 10% substitution of petrol and diesel fuel is estimated to require 43% and 38% of current cropland area in the United States and Europe, respectively. As even this low substitution level cannot be met from existing arable land, forests and grasslands would need to be cleared to enable production of the energy crops. Clearance results in the rapid oxidation of carbon stores in the vegetation and soil, creating a large up-front emissions cost that would, in all cases examined here, outweigh the avoided emissions. If the prime object of policy on biofuels is mitigation of carbon dioxide–driven global warming, policy-makers may be better advised in the short term (30 years or so) to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve the existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.

Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests? Renton Righelato and Dominick V. Spracklen. Science 17 August 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5840, p. 902 DOI: 10.1126/science.1141361

Biofuels and food security


In the report Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels  – UNEP warns that the biofuel production is competing with food production:

...cropland will have to be expanded only to feed the world population. (...) an estimated additional requirement of 144 to 334 Mha of global cropland for food in 2020 can be derived. Any further land requirements, for instance for fuel crops, will be added on top of this demand.

As future global biofuel demand is expected to increase, so is the demand on land. Land conversion for biofuel crops can lead to negative environmental impacts including implications such as reduced biodiversity and increased GHG emissions.

Two-thirds of the current expansion of palm oil cultivation in Indonesia is based on the conversion of rainforests, one third is based on previously cultivated or to-date fallow land.   Of the converted rainforest areas, one quarter contained peat soil with a high carbon content - resulting in particularly high GHG emissions when drained for oil palms. By 2030, a share of 50% from peat soils is expected. If current trends continue, in 2030 the total rainforest area of Indonesia will have been reduced by 29% as compared to 2005, and would only cover about 49% of its original area from 1990.


UNEP 2009: Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels

Overall environmental impact of palm oil diesel

In the debate about different biofuels, one can easily be overwhelmed by the “apples and oranges” problem: Each biofuel has certain benefits and potential costs, and there is no common currency for comparing them. This is where Zah et al. have broken new ground by devising a conceptual scheme to evaluate different biofuels using just two criteria: greenhouse-gas emissions and overall environmental impact.

The authors compare gasoline, diesel, and natural gas with 26 different biofuels produced from a wide range of “crops.” They assess the total environmental impact of each fuel by aggregating natural resource depletion and damage to human health and ecosystems into a single indicator, using two different methods. The second key criterion for each fuel is its greenhouse-gas emissions relative to gasoline.

The findings of Zah et al. are striking. Most (21 out of 26) biofuels reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30% relative to gasoline. But nearly half (12 out of 26) of the biofuels—including the economically most important ones, namely U.S. corn ethanol, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel—have greater aggregate environmental costs than do fossil fuels.


How Green Are Biofuels? Jörn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance, Science 4 January 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 - 44


The supposed environmental benefits of biofuels have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. A comparison with fossil fuels should not be limited to GHG emissions. Biofuels have a more positive record in respect of their end-of-pipe emissions, but those made from grains and oilseeds are generally more damaging to the environment up-stream.

The Swiss Institute, EMPA (Zah et al., 2007) performed a full life cycle assessment of a large number of biofuels and compared the environmental footprint with those of transport fuels derived from petroleum and natural gas (Fig. 7). The whole environmental impact was calculated using indicators measuring the damage to human health, ecosystems and the depletion of natural resources aggregated in a single indictor (UBP). Environmental impacts of vehicle operation are indeed much higher when fossil fuels are used. However, this is more than offset in many cases by the very high environmental impacts from agricultural production in terms of soil acidification and excessive fertilizer use, biodiversity loss, air pollution caused by slash-and-burn and the toxicity of pesticides.

Most biofuels have an overall environmental performance that is worse then gasoline, though their relative performance differs considerably (Fig. 8). EMPA gave maize-based ethanol in the USA a poor environmental score, whereas it determined that ethanol from sugar beets and sugarcane are only moderately better than gasoline in terms of their overall environmental impacts. Biodiesel scores negatively as well, in general. Only when waste products such as recycled cooking oils are used do their overall environmental performances fare better than that of gasoline. Biofuels made from woody biomass rated better than gasoline in all cases.


OECD / Richard Doornbosch and Ronald Steenblik.
Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease? September 12, 2007

 

Certification of palm oil will not prevent deforestation


Certification schemes (…) will have a positive but probably limited impact:

1. Clearly certification must apply to imports for food as well as biofuels, otherwise the unsustainable product will just be displaced from fuel to food market.
2. Unless all consuming (or all producing) countries adopt the certification scheme for all production, the uncertified production will be bought by non-participants.
3. The schemes will take time to implement, and will exclude some present producers. Therefore the volume of certified production will be much less than the EU import requirement for food and biodiesel for very many years.
4. Certification can only hope to encourage growth of sustainable production by creating a price premium for certified material, not to stop unsustainable practices by 2020.
We know that indirect GHG emissions could be larger than direct ones. How much they can be reduced depends critically on the policy and effectiveness of control by the world’s food and feed producing nations. Certification schemes help, but cannot prevent indirect emissions.


European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008, Biofuels in the European Context: Facts and Uncertainties


A proper certification could in principle guarantee that palm oil is not produced on deforested peatlands with high emissions from oxidating soil. However, unfortunately a certification would not be a guarantee of preventing the huge peatland emissions. Firstly, it is very difficult to guarantee the origin of palm oil, as there appears to be no reliable means to separate sustainably produced oil from unsustainably produced oil by just examining the final product. Secondly, even if the origin of the palm oil could be assured, nothing would actually prevent unsustainable palm oil production to move to deforested peatlands, this being a macro-phenomenon of growing biofuel demand, with a similar marginal impact as plantations established directly on peat soils.

Assessing the sustainability of liquid biofuels from evolving technologies. A Finnish approach. Eds.by Sampo Soimakallio, Riina Antikainen & Rabbe Thun. Espoo 2009. VTT VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland - Research Notes 2482

An increase in the demand for any vegetable oil increases prices for all of them, and further drives expansion, such as for both oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybean /Glycine max/ in Brazil. Even if the European Union sources its palm oil exclusively from certified ‘sustainable’ sources (such as producers signed up to the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), it will be indirectly supporting less responsible producers via higher prices.

Until it is demonstrated that oil crops are no longer replacing forests, the use of palm and other vegetable oils as biofuel feedstock is likely to exacerbate climate change, drive up food prices and hasten biodiversity loss.


How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?
Fitzherbert EB, Struebig, MJ .... Phalan, B. 2008. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23: 538-545.

Palm oil and forest fires in Southeast Asia


Large scale forest fires cause massive CO2-emissions in Southeast Asia. Smoke haze from forest fires is also a serious threat for people’s health. Forest and peatland clearing with fire is a common practice in palm oil plantation development. Greenpeace has evidence on Neste Oils palm oil supplier IOI using fire in forest clearance in Indonesia. According to Neste Oil, NExBTL palm oil diesel helps to reduce the tail-pipe Nox-emissions from diesel engines. The logic of Neste Oil is to leave the health problems to producer regions, while the wealthy users of palm oil diesel in Europe and US can enjoy on cleaner air.

Large forest fires in South-East Asia, notably in Indonesia, have caused serious health and environmental problems, in particular choking haze in the region, FAO said today. "Most of these fires are intentional and planned by agro-industrial companies to clear forests for agricultural land use," said Mike Jurvelius, FAO forest fire expert.
Forest fires for commercial land clearing should stop. Large forest fires in South-East Asia are causing serious environmental damage. FAO press release 30.8.2005

Insular Southeast Asia endures months of smoke-filled air every year during the dry season. Farmers and plantation developers deliberately and illegally set fire to the forest to clear the way for crops …. These fires can spread underground, and persist for long periods, destroying natural habitats and releasing substantial volumes of greenhouse gases. The annual burning in Southeast Asia is usually worst in El Niño years, which are exceptionally dry. … In 2006, fire levels peaked again in what is thought to be the start of an El Niño season that could continue through March 2007. The expansion of oil palm plantations is thought to be a major driver of this fire peak. In 2006, the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand urged Indonesia to do more to stop the annual fires because the regions’ citizens suffer both economic losses and health problems from the resultant haze.

The Last Stand of the Orangutan- State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia's National Parks. UNEP 2007


Among countries with humid tropical forests, Indonesia's current deforestation rate of 3.4% per year is second only to that of Brazil. The extent of large-scale oil palm plantations is projected to increase, partly to meet growing demand for biofuels. As droughts are inevitable and may become more severe, Indonesia's future fire regime depends strongly on the extent of these types of human activity.

Robert D. Field, Guido R. van der Werf and Samuel S. P. Shen.
Human amplification of drought-induced biomass burning in Indonesia since 1960 Tropical peatlands and biodiversity in SE Asia. Carbopeat Information Leaflets.
Nature Geoscience 22 February 2009 DOI: 10.1038/NGEO443

The negative greenhouse gas balance of palm oil diesel

 

According to an EU-report, the costs and problems of food-based 2nd generation biofuels outweight the benefits.

 

The only major biofuels which we can say are likely to save greenhouse gas (considering indirect effects) are bioethanol from sugar cane from Brazil, compressed biogas and second generation biofuels. For 1 st  generation biofuels made in EU it is clear that the overall indirect emissions are potentially much higher than the direct ones.

 

Certification schemes help, but cannot prevent indirect emissions.

 

The indirect effect on tropical peatlands is critical.

 

…if  roughly    2.4%  of biodiesel  comes  directly  or  indirectly  from  palm  oil  grown  on  peatland,  the  GHG savings from EU biodiesel are cancelled out.

 

European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008, Biofuels in the European Context: Facts and Uncertainties

http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/jrc/downloads/jrc_biofuels_report.pdf