Several years ago, environmentalists and activists celebrated palm oil production because they recognized the promise of the substance in alleviating our dependence on fossil fuel. Like other vegetables oils, palm oil can be used to create biodiesel, which on the surface appears to be a cleaner, more sustainable form of energy because it is derived from a plant. But as consumer demand and government subsidies for palm rose, so did the expansion of palm oil plantations. During the 1970’s, palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia increased 30-fold and 12-fold respectively according to a 2005 literature review by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Preparing the land for production of palm oil often entails burning peat, dead organic material that stores massive amounts of water and carbon, vital in mitigating climate change and supplying clean water. With large amounts of peatlands destroyed, it is no surprise that Indonesia soon rose to become one of the leading producers of carbon dioxide emissions, joining the ranks of the United States and China. Though the commodity is extremely lucrative financially (ranging between $700 to $100 per ton), the economic benefit comes at a great cost.
When the stability of the physical environment is compromised, we can intuitively draw the conclusion that life is also at stake. By developing indices of biodiversity and abundance, researchers at Queen Mary, University of London conducted a study that showed that oil plantations supported a sixth of the species found in primary forest. They deemed the potential of palm oil as a future agent of deforestation to be “enormous.” This prediction is particularly alarming when one considers that Indonesia and Malaysia have 15 and 6 critically endangered and 125 and 41 threatened land mammals, respectively, including the prized Sumatran tiger and Bornean orangutans. According to Collins et al (1991), “Indonesia, which has covering area of approximately 1.3 percent of the total area of the earth, has forest which is home to approximately 10 percent of all flowering species, 17 percent of bird species, 12 percent of all mammal species, and 16 percent of all species of amphibians.”
Some positive efforts have been made to ensure conservation in Indonesia. Created by the United Nations, a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation has a broad mission of working “to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.” Among the 29 partner countries, the UN has allocated $5.6 million to its REDD program in Indonesia; the funds are being used in a pilot region in Central Sulawesi to develop strategies to engage the local community in working to reduce green house emissions, all while ensuring economic prosperity.
Biofuels, such as those deriving form palm oil, will not reduce greenhouse emissions if they are processed in unsustainable ways. With forest deforestation and degradation accounting for nearly 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions, efforts aligned with REDD will be a critical goal in insuring long-term sustainability.