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Palm oil biofuel from peatlands has big climate impact, finds study

Biofuels produced from oil palm plantations established on tropical peatlands are a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions, reports a comprehensive new assessment conducted for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

The research, based on a literature review and analysis of scientific methods used to derive emissions estimates, concludes that palm oil produced in peatland areas generates 86 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year over a 50-year time period, well above the 50 ton estimate used previously. Annualizing emissions over a 20-year period — as required under the EU Renewable Energy Directive — boosts the figure to 106 tons of CO2 per year.

The findings have significant implications for E.U. biofuels policy, which requires biodiesel and ethanol to offer emissions savings relative to conventional fossil fuels.

Most palm oil is currently used for cooking oil, processed foods, cleaning products, and cosmetics.

“Although the climate change impacts of palm oil production on tropical peatland are becoming more widely recognized, this research shows that estimates of emissions have been drawn from a very limited number of scientific studies, most of which have underestimated the actual scale of emissions from oil palm,” said study co-author Ross Morrison of the University of Leicester. “These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels. When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source.”

While palm oil production for biofuels has amounted to only a tiny fraction of total palm oil production to date, the palm oil industry has been counting on European biofuel mandates to significantly boost palm oil demand incoming years. The new findings could potentially limit the upside for palm oil-based biodiesel.

Oil palm acreage for leading palm oil producers. By virtue of its high yield, palm oil is a cheaper substitute than other vegetable oils. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“It is important that the full greenhouse gas emissions ‘cost’ of biofuel production is made clear to the consumer, who may otherwise be mislead into thinking that all biofuels have a positive environmental impact,” said co-author Susan Page, also of the University of Leicester. “The findings of this research will be used by organizations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, European Commission and California Air Resources Board to more fully account for greenhouse gas emissions and their uncertainties from biofuel produced from palm oil. This is essential in identifying the least environmentally damaging biofuel production pathways, and the formulation of national and international biofuel and transportation policies.”

“Recognizing that emissions are larger than previously thought will help regulators such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), European Commission (EC) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) identify which biofuel pathways are likely to lead to sustainable greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” added Chris Malins of the ICCT.

Other research has shown that several common biofuel feedstocks — including corn and rapeseed which have considerably lower yields than oil palm — also have high emissions from direct and indirect land use. Conversion and disturbance of carbon-dense ecosystems and application of fertilizers increases emissions from biofuel production. In the case of palm oil, clearing forest and draining peatlands — which release CO2 when water levels drop — are substantial sources of emissions.

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