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Oil palm does not store more carbon than forests

Oil palm does not store more carbon than forests

Indonesian palm oil industry tries disinformation campaign
Rhett A. Butler,
November 8, 2007

Officials from the Indonesian ministry of agriculture and the palm oil industry are distributing materials that misrepresent the carbon balance oil palm plantations, according to accounts from people who have seen presentations by members of the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission. Ministry of agricultural officials are apparently arguing that oil palm plantations store and sequester many times the amount of CO2 as natural forests and therefore converting forests for plantations is the best way to fight climate change. In making such claims, these Indonesian officials are ignoring data that show the opposite, putting the credibility of the oil palm industry at risk, and undermining efforts to slow deforestation and reign in greenhouse gas emissions.

A pamphlet distributed last week by the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission (IPOC) states “Compared to tropical forest, oil palm plantations possesses several environmental advantages, it consumes more carbon dioxide (CO2) and releases more oxygen (O2) than tropical forest, which is beneficial to the environment” (sic) citing figures from Environmental Characteristics of Oil Palm Plantations (Henson 1999) that show CO2 fixation of tropical forest at 9.62 ton/year and oil palm plantation at 25.71; respiration of tropical forest at 121.10 ton/CO2/ha/year and of oil palm plantation 96.50; O2 production of tropical forest at 7.00 ton/ha/year and oil palm at 18.70.

Carbon storage of oil palm plantations versus natural forests, based on various sources.

The pamphlet then goes on to contradict itself stating, “However, there is also a concern on the increasing demand of palm oil for biodiesel, three European countries: the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, has created a set of criteria which will become a major concern for the producer as these criteria are hard to implement and have little tolerance. The criteria where producers will find it hard to comply are with CO2 emission and biodiversity.” (sic)

Grammatical errors aside, few serious scientists would support the claim that oil palm plantations store more carbon than natural tropical forests. In fact, several recent studies show that oil palm plantations produce more greenhouse gas emissions relative to natural forests. If the use of fertilizer and emissions from processing are factored in, the climate impact of converting natural forests for oil palm is even greater.

Carbon sequestration rates versus carbon storage

As is the case with any plant, oil palm trees do sequester carbon sequester carbon as they grow — carbon is a basic building block of plant tissue. Nevertheless, the process of clearing forest in order to establish a plantation releases more carbon than will be sequestered by the growing oil palms. So while a new oil palm plantation may grow faster — and sequester carbon at a higher annual rate — than a naturally regenerating forest, in the end the oil plantation will still store less carbon (50-90 percent less over 20 years) than the original forest cover. The carbon losses are even greater when the plantation is established on peat lands, which store vast amounts of carbon but release it as they are drained (upon exposure to air, peat rapidly oxidizes, decomposes, and releases carbon dioxide).

Palm oil and poverty alleviation?

Another argument used by the palm oil industry is that oil palm plantations play a significant role in poverty alleviation. However a new study using data from neighboring Malaysia found that these claims may be overstated. Examining poverty rates and oil palm expansion in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo, researcher Marc D. Bowden found that despite substantially lower coverage of oil palm plantations, Sarawak saw a greater reduction in poverty rates over the past three decades than neighboring Sabah. In Sarawak, where oil palm plantation cover expanded from 0.12 percent of the land area in 1976 to 4.08 percent in 2004, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line fell 85 percent from 51.7 percent to 7.5 percent in the same period. Meanwhile in Sabah, where oil palm plantation cover grew from 0.95 percent in 1976 to 15.81 percent in 2004, poverty rates dropped 55 percent from 51.2 percent to 23 percent.

Read more: Are the economic benefits of palm oil exaggerated?

“The emission from forest conversion clearly exceeds the potential carbon fixation of oil palm plantings. Forest conversion on mineral soils to promote continued oil palm mono cropping causes a net release of approximately 650 Mg carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare, while the emission from peat forest conversion is even higher due to the decomposition of drained peat and the resulting emission of carbon oxide and nitrous oxide,” wrote Germer and Sauerborn in a paper published earlier this year in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability. “The conversion of one hectare of forest on peat releases over 1,300 Mg carbon dioxide equivalents during the first 25-year cycle of oil palm growth. Depending on the peat depth, continuous decomposition augments the emission with each additional cycle at a magnitude of 800 Mg carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare.”

Meine van Noordwijk, Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia and Principal Ecologist for the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) says that industry claims of carbon superiority for a plantation fall short when one looks at the big picture.

“This is the classical debate on flows versus stocks, of plant physiology versus systems ecology — currently the pulpwood as well as the oil palm plantation sector are fighting the battle with claims that they improve the C sequestration rates from something like 0.5 t C/ha/yr for maturing forest to values of 3-5 t C/ha/yr for fast growing plantations — while the world should care about the release of about 250 t C/ha of existing stocks before this increase in rates can be realized,” van Noordwijk told “It will take 50-100 years before [carbon storage at this sequestration rate] equals 250.” Meanwhile the average life on an oil palm plantation is less than 25 years.

“You can vary the numbers, but qualitatively the story remains that the release of forest carbon stock to the atmosphere takes a very long time to be offset by whatever the claims are for plantation growth rates,” van Noordwijk added. “The simplest concept to avoid the need to account for all photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, removal of plant products etc is to look at the ‘time-averaged carbon stock’ of the system — this allows direct comparison at systems level, and suggests that there is a substantial difference between oil palm and pulpwood plantations on one hand, and natural forest on the other, with logged forests in between. This is the story for mineral soils.”

On peat soils, the carbon balance is even less favorable for oil palm plantations due to emissions from drainage.

“The belowground carbon stocks in peat land can be thousands of t C/ha, and the rates of release may be 30-50 t C /ha/yr — so the aboveground capture by fast growing pulpwood or oil palm is only 10% of the concurrent losses from the peat — it is, indeed, a huge experiment in CO2 fertilization if you grow trees on a peat that has been drained to 80 cm depth as is standard practice in Indonesia.”

Wetlands International, an prominent environmental group that has released a widely-cited study on emissions from peat lands degradation and destruction, agrees.

“In a good year approximately 3 to 6 tons of palm oil is produced per hectare, causing emissions of 70 to 100 tons of carbon dioxide [19 to 27 metric tons of carbon] per year per hectare,” Susanna Tol, a researcher with Wetlands, told “The production of one ton of palm oil results in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 33 tons [9 tons carbon]” — roughly ten times that of ordinary diesel.

“At least 1.5 million ha of palm oil is planted on peat in Indonesia alone and will contribute some 100 to 150 Mt CO2/annum, or about 27 – 41 Mt carbon losses directly in these plantations and only from drainage,” added Marcel Silvius, a senior scientist at Wetlands. “The use of fertilisers and methane emissions of the palm oil production process add still more emissions… not to mention the initial loss of the tropical rain forest and its carbon sequestration potential.”

Palm oil can be part of the solution

While the data show that oil palm plantations are no match for natural forests in terms of storing carbon, palm oil can still play a role in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Oil palm is one of the world’s most productive oilseeds — on a per-unit-of-area basis, biodiesel yields from oil palm far outstrip those from conventional biofuels like corn, soybeans, sugar beets, rapeseed and sugar cane. In other words, using oil palm as a source of biodiesel will require the conversion of less land for bioenergy feedstock than other sources, allowing more land to be set aside for other uses, including conservation. The key to maximizing the potential benefits of palm oil is to establish plantations on Indonesia’s tens of millions of hectares of already deforested and abandoned wastelands, while protecting the country’s remaining peat lands and natural forests for biodiversity, carbon storage, and other ecosystem services. To make this a reality, the Indonesian government, palm oil producers, and palm oil consumers will need to work together to develop a robust and verifiable supply-chain tracking mechanism for palm oil. The palm oil industry’s best interests lie in leading these efforts rather than attempting to scam the public. Such underhanded tactics will only come back to hurt them in the future.


Palm oil doesn’t have to be bad for the environment
(4/4/2007) As traditionally practiced in southeast Asia, oil palm cultivation is responsible for widespread deforestation that reduces biodiversity, degrades important ecological services, worsens climate change, and traps workers in inequitable conditions sometimes analogous to slavery. This doesn’t have to be the case. Following examples set forth by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and firms like Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil producer, oil palm can be cultivated in a manner that helps mitigate climate change, preserves biodiversity, and brings economic opportunities to desperately poor rural populations.

Eco-friendly palm oil could help alleviate poverty in Indonesia
(4/3/2007) The Associated Press (AP) recently quoted Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, as saying palm oil is a failure as a biofuel. This would be a misleading statement and one that doesn’t help efforts to devise a workable solution to the multiplicity of issues surrounding the use of palm oil.

Environmental concerns mount as palm oil production grows
(5/15/2007) The booming market for palm oil is driving record production but fueling rising concerns over the environmental impact of the supposedly “green” bioenergy source. The two leading producers of palm oil, Malaysia and Indonesia, have rapidly expanded palm oil production in recent years, often at the expense of biodiverse rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands that store billions of tons of greenhouse gases. Environmentalists say that due to these factors, burning of palm oil can at times be more damaging the global climate than the use of fossil fuels.

Could peatlands conservation be more profitable than palm oil?
(8/22/2007) This past June, World Bank published a report warning that climate change presents serious risks to Indonesia, including the possibility of losing 2,000 islands as sea levels rise. While this scenario is dire, proposed mechanisms for addressing climate change, notably carbon credits through avoided deforestation, offer a unique opportunity for Indonesia to strengthen its economy while demonstrating worldwide innovative political and environmental leadership. In a July 29th editorial we argued that in some cases, preserving ecosystems for carbon credits could be more valuable than conversion for oil palm plantations, providing higher tax revenue for the Indonesian treasury while at the same time offering attractive economic returns for investors.

Dutch: no subsidies for biofuels-driven rainforest destruction
(10/31/2007) The Dutch government will exclude palm oil from “green energy” subsidies as growing evidence suggests that palm oil is often less sustainable than advertised.

more palm oil news


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