Degraded grasslands better option for palm oil production relative to rainforests, finds study
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 3, 2008
"Our analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical forestlands," said lead author Finn Danielsen of Denmark's Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology (NORDECO). "Until then, we will be releasing carbon into the atmosphere by cutting tropical rain forests, in addition to losing valuable plant and animal species. It's even worse on peatlands, which contain so much carbon that it would be 600 years before we see any benefits whatsoever."
Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.
While these lands offer great potential to expand palm oil production without encroaching on carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems like tropical rainforests and peat swamps, developers have traditionally been hesitant to develop Imperata grasslands due to the lack of a "logging subsidy" generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm. Thus forests across Malaysia and Indonesia continue to be cleared for oil palm plantations. While a recent collapse of palm oil prices may offer a temporary reprieve from the relentless expansion the region has experienced over the past generation, many observers expect palm oil demand to continue to grow for use in food, industrial applications, and biodiesel production, putting remaining forests at risk.
Oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market — far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops.
"Biofuels are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace tropical rain forests," said co-author Dr. Neil Burgess of World Wildlife Fund. "In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of the world's most efficient carbon storage tools – intact tropical rain forests."
Three stages: (1) Healthy forest in Borneo; (2) recently cleared forest adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo); (3) scrubland adjacent to Tanjung Puting.
To discourage continued conversion of ecologically-important and carbon-dense ecosystems for oilseed production, the authors call for the establishment of global sustainability standards for biofuels, a measure which is already under consideration by the E.U. Such criteria — potentially applied to production or imports — could lead to the conservation of forests and peat lands for their carbon they store, the biodiversity they house, and the ecosystem services they provide, while promoting oil palm expansion on otherwise abandoned grasslands. Countries like Indonesia could see a windfall from both increased palm oil production and compensation from emerging markets for forest carbon and ecosystem services.
CITATION: Finn Danielsen et al. Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate. Conservation Biology, 2008; DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01096.x
The growing demand for biofuels is promoting the expansion of a number of agricultural commodities, including oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Oil-palm plantations cover over 13 million ha, primarily in Southeast Asia, where they have directly or indirectly replaced tropical rainforest. We explored the impact of the spread of oil-palm plantations on greenhouse gas emission and biodiversity. We assessed changes in carbon stocks with changing land use and compared this with the amount of fossil-fuel carbon emission avoided through its replacement by biofuel carbon. We estimated it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion, depending on how the forest was cleared. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years. Conversely, planting oil palms on degraded grassland would lead to a net removal of carbon within 10 years. These estimates have associated uncertainty, but their magnitude and relative proportions seem credible. We carried out a meta-analysis of published faunal studies that compared forest with oil palm. We found that plantations supported species-poor communities containing few forest species. Because no published data on flora were available, we present results from our sampling of plants in oil palm and forest plots in Indonesia. Although the species richness of pteridophytes was higher in plantations, they held few forest species. Trees, lianas, epiphytic orchids, and indigenous palms were wholly absent from oil-palm plantations. The majority of individual plants and animals in oil-palm plantations belonged to a small number of generalist species of low conservation concern. As countries strive to meet obligations to reduce carbon emissions under one international agreement (Kyoto Protocol), they may not only fail to meet their obligations under another (Convention on Biological Diversity) but may actually hasten global climate change. Reducing deforestation is likely to represent a more effective climate-change mitigation strategy than converting forest for biofuel production, and it may help nations meet their international commitments to reduce biodiversity loss.
Other sources used in the preparation of this post
- Garrity D.P., Soekardi M., van Noordwijk M., De la Cruz R., Pathak P.S., Gunasena H.P.M., van So N., Juijun G. and Majid N.M. (1997) : The Imperata grasslands of tropical Asia: area distribution, and typology. Agroforestry Systems. Volume 36:3-29. Numbers 1-3 / December. Springer Netherlands.
- Rötheli, E. (2007). An analysis of the economic implications of developing oil palm plantations on deforested land in Indonesia. WWF
- Butler, R.A. (2008). Biodiversity of rainforests should not be compared with oil palm plantations says palm oil council chief. mongabay.com, November 11, 2008
- Butler, R.A. & Koh, L.P. (2008). In Press.
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Rainforest conversion to oil palm causes 83% of wildlife to disappear
(9/15/2008) Conversion of primary rainforest to an oil palm plantation results in a loss of more than 80 percent of species, reports a new comprehensive review of the impacts of growing palm oil production. The research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Biofuels 200 times more expensive than forest conservation for global warming mitigation
(8/27/2008) The British government should end subsidies for biofuels and instead use the funds to slow destruction of rainforests and tropical peatlands argues a new report issued by a U.K.-based think tank. The study, titled "The Root of the Matter" and published by Policy Exchange, says that "avoided deforestation" would be a more cost-effective way to address climate change, since land use change generates more emissions than the entire global transport sector and offers ancillary benefits including important ecosystem services.
Brazil to establish oil palm plantations on degraded Amazon rainforest lands
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Biofuels can reduce emissions, but not when grown in place of rainforests
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Biofuels, food demand may doom tropical forests
(7/14/2008) Rising demand for fuel, food, and wood products will take a heavy toll on tropical forests, warns a new report released by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Half of oil palm expansion in Malaysia, Indonesia occurs at expense of forests
(5/20/2008) More than half of the oil palm expansion between 1990 and 2005 Malaysia and Indonesia occurred at expense of forests, reports a new analysis published in the journal conservation Letters. Analyzing data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove of Princeton University found that 55-59 percent of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and at least 56 percent of that in Indonesia occurred at the expense of forests. Given that oil palm plantations are biologically impoverished relative to primary and secondary forests, the researchers recommend restricting future expansion to pre-existing cropland and degraded habitats.
Malaysian palm oil industry puts sustainability in the spotlight
(4/17/2008) Seeking to differentiate its palm oil from that produced less responsibly in other countries, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) sponsored a three-day meeting this week in Kota Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo.
Palm oil boycott an unrealistic approach to conserving biodiversity
(4/15/2008) Boycotting palm oil produced in Southeast Asia in an "unrealistic" and "ineffective" approach to conserving the region's fast-disappearing rainforests, said a Princeton University researcher speaking at a conference on the sustainability of palm oil. Instead, NGOs should focus on engaging and working with the palm oil industry to reduce its impact on the environment. Addressing the first International Palm Oil Sustainability Conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Princeton biologist Dr. David S. Wilcove said that the palm oil industry is too important to the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia to justify blanket import bans on the edible oil used in food, cosmetics, industrial products, and biodiesel. The palm oil industry contributes to health, education, and infrastructure in rural areas.
E.U. may ban palm oil biodiesel
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