Scientists call for action to stop palm oil deforestation

Palm-Oil infographic-2-6-14-2216px The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists has just published a new infographic about the deforestation caused by oil palm cultivation and has called on palm oil companies to improve sustainability standards and only sell palm oil that is produced without causing forest destruction.

Companies using palm oil can reduce negative impacts by adopting strong sourcing policies and refusing to buy from producers whose plantations are on peat or other forested land, the UCS adds.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, who together produce close to 90 percent of the world supply.

In Indonesia, unscrupulous companies have been slashing and burning whole swathes of land that were thought to be protected by law; they have cleared peatland that should be excluded from such production because of its environmental value.

The demand for palm oil is massive. Global consumption was estimated at 58 million tonnes in 2013, and 50 percent of this was produced in Indonesia.

“Many of the products we use in our daily lives, from crackers to shampoo, contain palm oil, an ingredient that is driving tropical deforestation and global warming,” said the UCS, which has published several reports about palm oil and the destruction being caused by its production.

Ten percent of all global warming emissions result from deforestation, the UCS says. “This practice destroys irreplaceable forests that are home to endangered species and a resource for forest-dependent communities,” said Sharon Smith, campaign manager for the UCS’s Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative.

According to the WWF, about half the packaged food now found in supermarkets contains palm oil. It is present in all kinds of produce ranging from biscuits and peanut butter to chocolate and ice cream; it’s in all kinds of ready meals and breakfast cereals, and in shampoo, cosmetics, shaving cream, soap, and industrial lubricants.

Palm oil is now also being used to make biofuel, the production of which actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing the impact

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides criteria for certified sustainable palm oil, but the UCS says the organisation’s standards “do not yet represent the best science regarding forest conservation and carbon emissions”.

Certified sustainable palm oil, the scientists point out, is not guaranteed to be deforestation-free, and the destruction of peatlands is not banned.

In early 2013, more than 200 scientists from around the world called on the RSPO to adopt stronger standards to address these problems, but, says the UCS, the RSPO failed to make these needed changes.

Purchasing certified sustainable palm oil is a good first step, the UCS says, and many buyers are tightening up their palm oil policies, but much more needs to be done to eliminate the negative environmental impacts associated with palm oil production.

Palm oil could be grown on degraded land instead of forested land, and on mineral soils instead of peat soils, the scientists union says. Also, existing palm oil plantations could increase crop yields to reduce the need for new plantation expansion.

“Palm oil can be grown without destroying tropical forests or our climate,” said Sharon Smith. “Several producer and user companies have made public commitments to sustainable palm oil.”

In December 2013, the Singapore-based palm oil producer and trader Wilmar announced that it would commit to supplying palm oil that was deforestation-free and did not violate human rights.

The UCS welcomed the announcement. “The language sets a strong new standard for deforestation-free, peat-free, and exploitation-free palm oil,” said Smith . “Wilmar indicated that they are responding to the rising market demand for traceable, responsibly produced vegetable oil. If Wilmar is genuine in its commitment, this could be a game-changer for the industry.”

Smith says the UCS will be watching closely to see if Wilmar is serious about protecting the environment, endangered species, and indigenous communities.

The UCS has also welcomed statements by Unilever and Ferrerro Chocolates that, by the end of 2014, all of the palm oil they buy globally will be traceable.

“L’Oréal just adopted a deforestation-free policy that, in writing, is quite strong on palm oil,” Smith added. “And Kellogg has just made a new deforestation and traceability commitment.”

Dramatic statistics

stats palm oil indonesia

The data gathered together by the UCS highlights the huge impact of palm oil production:

• Palm oil acreage worldwide increased from 15 million acres in 1990 to 40 million acres in 2011.

• When tropical forests are cut down for palm oil, large amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. From 2001 to 2010, land-use carbon emissions from palm oil in Indonesia averaged 216 to 268 million tonnes, which is equivalent to the emissions from 45 to 55 million cars, 61 to 75 coal-fired power plants, or the energy use from 10 to 13 million homes.

• Palm oil conversion also takes a heavy toll on tropical forest biodiversity: only 15 percent of species that inhabit tropical forests are also found on palm oil plantations.

• Between 1990 and 2010, global production of palm oil nearly quadrupled, rising from 14.5 million tonnes to 54.2 million tonnes. Production is projected to pass 75 million tonnes by 2020.

While Southeast Asia is still the main hub for palm oil production, producers are rapidly moving into Africa – and Liberia, Cameroon, Gabon, and Ghana in particular. Palm oil production is also expanding fast in Brazil.

“Tropical forests play a crucial role in stabilizing the earth’s climate, storing vastly more carbon dioxide than forests in the world’s temperate regions,” the UCS said. “And they play host to millions of species, comprising about two-thirds of the earth’s terrestrial biodiversity.”

A study carried out in 2011 estimated that the earth’s tropical forests store 271 billion tonnes of carbon, which is about seven times the total carbon emitted as a result of fossil fuel use in 2008.

Endangering wildlife

In a landmark court ruling in Indonesia in January, the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam was fined millions of dollars for illegally burning large areas of the Tripa peat forest in Sumatra.

The case was brought by the Indonesian environment ministry. Tripa lies within the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.

The court ordered the company to pay 114.3 billion rupiah (nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the 1,000 hectares of forest affected.

Large areas of Sumatra continue to be illegally burned for oil palm cultivation, however, and the resultant smog is carried as far as neighbouring Malaysia.

Experts in wildlife protection say habitat destruction is bringing the Sumatran orangutan to the brink of extinction.

orang petition2 As recently as the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia was covered with tropical rainforests, but the country now has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world. Between 1990 and 2005, Indonesia lost more than 28 million hectares of forest, including 21.7 hectares of virgin forest. It is estimated that, from 2000 to 2010, about 1.125 million hectares have been lost.

palm tripa burningTripa burning in 2012; photo by Carlos Quiles.

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Article updated 15/02/2014