EU Fuel Rules Could Exacerbate the Palm Oil Problem

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In 2004, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan professor, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her Greenbelt Campaign. The forestry project has planted more than 30 million trees in its 32 years, stemming deforestation across swaths of Africa and helping 900,000 African women to have decent livelihoods tending to tree nurseries and planting trees.

Trees are undeniably good things. They draw CO2 from the atmosphere and store it physically as carbon in their structure. They improve water and air quality, and protect soil from erosion and, in turn, desertification. Particularly in tropical zones, continuous vegetative cover is the only way to prevent the destruction of the soil, since, as environmental historian Colin Duncan explains,

"In many tropical places, the meager soils also have some unfortunate geological characteristics. High laterite content renders some tropical soils into concrete-like surfaces in the event that the vegetation cover is removed and they are exposed to drier conditions. Such eventualities are practically irreversible."

Still, we should be absolutely clear that greenery is not a panacea for excess atmospheric CO2.

Sometimes tree-planting can ultimately have negative effects on net CO2 emissions. One example occurs when natural or old-growth forests are destroyed and commercial monoculture tree plantations replace them.

One particularly pernicious version of this phenomenon is palm oil plantations, which have contributed to widespread deforestation of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Some palm oil is used for human consumption, but much of it is used for European bio-diesel. This bio-diesel creates a “carbon debt” because of the massive CO2 emissions released though palm oil cultivation. According to a 2008 study, this carbon debt requires 86 years to pay back, at which point net CO2 emissions from bio-diesel use become negative. Eighty-six years, of course, might as well be forever, since the trajectory of the global climate will likely be determined by emissions in the next 10, perhaps 20 years. And for those years, CO2 emissions from the land-use changes associated with palm oil plantations will be massive.

This is because palm oil is grown in monoculture plantations, and those plantations are frequently located on land that used to be peat-land forest. Peat is composed of old vegetative debris that is so sodden with water that it never really decomposes, due to lack of oxygen and a high acidity level, storing massive amounts of carbon.

That was well enough until people who wished to grow palm-oil trees decided to drain the peat forests and slice them up with canals, in the process releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as the previously stable vegetation decomposed.

The fires that rage through increasingly dry peat-lands also contribute to global CO2 emissions, and this dryness is not a natural occurrence. As peat forests are deliberately drained and canals channel off their water, they become increasingly vulnerable to devastating burning.

The burning, too, is not necessarily a natural occurrence. A Friends of Earth report a decade ago noted that 46 percent to 80 percent of the bigger fires in Indonesia in 1997 and 1998 "occurred on plantation company land, around three quarters of which were oil palm plantations. It is likely that the majority were started by plantation companies."

Eyewitnesses attest to such practices more recently, too. According to a joint Wetlands International/Delft Hydraulics study, burning and decomposition together result in over 2000 megatons per year of CO2 emissions, 8 percent of global CO2 emissions. About 90 percent of these emissions originate in Indonesia. As the study concludes,

“Deforested and drained peatlands in SE Asia are a globally significant source of CO2 emissions and a major obstacle to meeting the aim of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.”

On its own, this is an environmental catastrophe. Now, the European Commission may be about to exacerbate the situation.

The EC is working on an update to its Renewable Energy Directive, an agreement requiring 10 percent of member states’ transportation fuel to come from renewable sources by 2020, and a leaked draft memorandum suggests the commission is attempting to create a loophole for palm oil by classifying palm oil plantations as “forests.” The commission is reportedly under pressure from Malaysian producers who jetted to Brussels to protect their income.

If this occurs, bio-diesel made from palm oil on land would be possible under the framework on an EU law intended to stop the European use of unsustainable biofuels. The early draft states:

"Continuously forested areas are defined as areas where trees have reached, or can reach, at least heights of 5 meters, making up a crown cover of more than 30%. They would normally include forest, forest plantations and other tree plantations such as palm oil. Short rotation coppice may qualify if it fulfills the height and canopy cover criteria.

"This means, for example, that a change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion."

So under this draft wording, the palm tree plantations that dump CO2 into the atmosphere and have razed Malaysia’s forests, the plantations that are contributing to a 2 percent annual deforestation rate that in turn has made Indonesia the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter, should be considered a source of sustainable fuel.

Why is this wording being considered, and why isn’t there a bigger uproar against it?


See also:

Scientists Search for Carbon Solutions in Amazonia’s ‘Black Earth’

Land Use Offers Valuable Solutions for Protecting the Climate

Desertification Threatens Food Security and Climate

(Photo: wakx/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)