Clearing and burning for oil palm plantation establishment in Malaysia
Methane leaks from palm oil wastewater significantly increases the climate impact of palm oil production beyond emissions from land clearance, fire, and peatlands drainage, reports a new study published in Nature Climate Change.
The research, led by Philip. G. Taylor of the University of Colorado, finds that annual methane emissions from palm oil wastewater effluent amount to the equivalent of 115 million tons carbon dioxide in Malaysia and Indonesia alone, or roughly 15 percent of total emissions from peat oxidation and land use change in the two countries.
“Methane leaks from palm oil wastewater are a large climate threat, which could rise to 1 percent of global GHG emissions by 2050,” Taylor told mongabay.com. “Palm oil wastewater methane represents 15 percent of the forest greenhouse gas emissions problem, though it is certainly not appreciated as such.”
But the problem isn’t intractable, says Wells, who suggests that instead of letting these emissions escape into the atmosphere, where they add to greenhouse gas concentrations, methane from wastewater should be used for bioenergy production.
“These emissions are a source of renewable energy that should be tapped as profitable solution to climate change,” he explained.
Oil palm fruit
According to the research, Malaysia could meet roughly a quarter of its energy demand by utilizing methane from palm oil wastewater. The advantage of using this methane is it is an off-the-grid source of fuel in areas where power infrastructure is often poor.
“Infrastructure development will take time, and for mills without access to the grid there are immediate ways to mitigate POME CH4,” the authors write, adding that the waste product may also offer utility as a fertilizer.
The researchers indicate that smarter use of wastewater, combined with a moratorium on natural forest conversion and a focus on improving yields, could move the palm oil toward greater sustainability.
“Though POME CH4 mitigation would not remove the damages of forest clearing, it has co-benefits for mill owners, local communities and those broadly impacted by climate change. Crucially, the financial benefits from POME bioenergy must be coupled to a strict moratorium on forest clearing to prevent the financing of deforestation, which would overwhelm the climate benefits of POME CH4 bioenergy,” they write. “Progress on both fronts is slow, but direly needed if palm oil is to fully achieve its promise of social, environmental and economic prosperity.”
CITATION: Philip. G. Taylor et al. Palm oil wastewater methane emissions and bioenergy potential NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE | VOL 4 | MARCH 2014.