Palm oil plantations could be accelerating the effects of climate change, new research shows, adding further credibility to claims the crop is not environmentally sustainable and eliminates biodiversity, which is pushing many species toward extinction.
An international team of scientists examined how the deforestation of peat swamps in Malaysia to make way for palm oil trees is releasing carbon which has been locked away for thousands of years. Their report has been published in the journal Nature.
Microbes then penetrate the carbon and the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is released, which is thought to be the biggest contributor to global warming.
Unsustainable methods of growing crop-based biofuels have come under fire as environmentalists question their overall impact on the environment and the atmosphere. Most palm oil plantations are contributing to deforestation and total carbon buildup in atmosphere.
As governments and companies look to biofuels to provide a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in transport, the industry has expanded rapidly. More than 80 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to some estimates, an area the size of Greece is cleared every year for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is especially attractive because it is cheaper than rapeseed oil and soybean oil for biodiesel.
In their study, the research team measured water channels in palm oil plantations in the Malaysian peninsular which were originally peat swamp forest. They found ancient carbon came from deep in the soil, then broke down and dissolved into nearby streams and rivers as deforestation occurred.
“We have known for some time that in South East Asia oil palm plantations were a major threat to biodiversity–and that the drainage could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide during the fires seen there in recent years,” said Chris Freeman, one of the authors of the report and an environmental scientist at the University of Bangor in Wales.
“But this discovery of a ‘hidden’ new source of problems in the waters draining these peatlands is a reminder that these fragile ecosystems really are in need of conservation,” he added.
There are approximately 28,000 square kilometers of industrial plantations in Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo and there are even more planned, making them a major contributor to peat swamp deforestation in the region, the paper said.
“Our results are yet another reminder that when we disturb intact peat swamps and convert them to industrial biofuel plantations, we risk adding to the very problem that we are trying to solve,” Freeman said.
Industry efforts to bring this deforestation under control have come through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It was set up in 2004 to establish clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil, and its members include high-street names like Unilever, Cadbury’s, Nestlé and Tesco, as well as palm oil traders such as Cargill and ADM. Together, these companies represent 40 percent of global palm oil trade. But since then, forest destruction has continued. 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.