Counting The Carbon Cost Of Palm Oil

Every hectare of rainforest converted to oil palm plantation releases 174 tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, researchers say.

AsianScientist (Jul. 5, 2018) – Scientists have found that the conversion of rainforest land into oil palm plantations leaves a large carbon footprint. Their findings are published in Nature Communications.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for nearly 85 percent of global palm oil production. This oil is commonly used in processed foods, cosmetics and biofuels. While it is inexpensive, the environmental and social costs of its production are high. Each year, thousands of hectares of rainforest disappear to meet the growing demand for palm oil worldwide.

In this study, a team led by Dr. Thomas Guillaume at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, investigated the environmental impact of oil palm cultivation in Indonesia. Drawing on more than two years of data collected by the University of Göttingen on the soil and vegetation in central Sumatra, the researchers compared the impact of oil palm monoculture with that of rubber cultivation practices.

Converting rainforest land into oil palm plantations was linked to significant levels of carbon emissions: one hectare of converted land equated to a loss of 174 tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. Intensive rubber farming, on the other hand, is associated with a loss of 159 tons of carbon, while extensive rubber production corresponds to 116 tons. This difference between oil palms and rubber plants owes largely to the shorter plantation rotation time of oil palms.

“The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York in economy class,” said Guillaume of EPFL.

Following the harvesting of oil palm, the scientists observed that the amount of biomass that returns to the soil in oil palm plantations was 90 percent lower than that in a rainforest. This is because the soil on oil palm plantations is constantly being cleared and treated with pesticides to make the farmers’ work easier. As a result, large amounts of fertilizers are needed to make up for the loss of fertility in the soil and the decrease in its biological activity.

The researchers thus recommend that deforestation should only be carried out if the wood that is felled can be used without being burned. In addition, a more abundant layer of vegetation should be left on the ground as a natural fertilizer. Finally, the waste from palm oil mills should be returned to the soil as another form of fertilizer.


The article can be found at: Guillaume et al. (2018) Carbon Costs and Benefits of Indonesian Rainforest Conversion to Plantations.

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Source: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.
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