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Palm oil industry’s big carbon impact

 Posted by on November 20, 2009
Nov 202009

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

It’s The Year of Living Dangerously all over again.

Orangutan (Photo: Tom Theodore/Dreamstime)

Orangutan (Photo: Tom Theodore/Dreamstime)

On Tuesday, two journalists were arrested in Sumatra while covering a politically sensitive topic – palm oil harvesting and the ensuing decimation of Southeast Asia’s old-growth, carbon-capturing rainforests, and the subsequent release of giant CO2 pockets that lie beneath the forests and their peat swamps.

More disturbing than the reporters’ deportation, though, is how little we consumers seem to realize that, not only are we what we eat, but when it comes to palm oil, we are eating our own lifeblood. We’re ‘eating’ our oxygen, we’re ‘eating’ our fellow species. We’re consuming our own future by driving up carbon emissions much faster than we can offset them. We are the snake eating its own tail.

Mass deforestation, due to the rapid establishment of palm oil plantations backed by multinational corporations, has recently made Indonesia the third-largest carbon emitter in the world. Think of it, number three  – after the more industrialized China and the United States.

Indonesia’s neighbors, Malaysia and Papaua, New Guinea, also are top producers of palm oil, making Southeast Asia a veritable carbon drain. Because of rapid rainforest loss in these sensitive areas, experts estimate that between 50 and 60 endangered orangutans perish each week, as their habits are destroyed or they are killed by workers. Roughly two football fields worth of rainforests are felled every minute by palm oil plantations, bellowing out stored carbon.

In addition, recent studies show that global deforestation creates one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions; and conversely, that tropical forests now absorb one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions that are caused by burning fossil fuels.

“Rainforests are one of the biggest ways that carbon gets absorbed from the atmosphere, so rainforests and trees and peat swamps – the whole ecosystem – takes in a large amount of carbon and stores it,” says Margaret Swink, of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which in the past year has stepped up its protests against companies like Cargill, which uses palm oil in many manufactured foods.

“It only releases when you destroy it – burning being the worst way. When rainforests are cut and burned, you’ve just released millennia of carbon absorption into the air, which is why rainforest destruction is such a threat. …You’ve just released all this carbon into the atmosphere, but because it’s a cycle (remember studying the carbon cycle in fourth-grade science?), you’ve also taken away the thing that was removing carbon from the atmosphere … and so when you replant a palm-oil plantation, it doesn’t absorb as much carbon that those older trees – as that whole ecosystem did” for many thousands of years.

And we, the current people generation, get a double carbon-whammy.

But until, say, two to five years ago, who knew that some of our favorite foods – holiday season or not – contain palm oil derivatives to preserve, add flavor to or fry foods to a golden crispness? Things like cocoa mix, crackers, potato chips, margarine, instant soups, cakes, chocolate bars, cookies, even certain types of granola are all formulated with palm oil.

Yet, as the holidays hover around us and we try to figure out what we’re really giving thanks for, we can take simple steps to slow rainforest destruction. We can learn about campaigns, such as RAN’s recent Call Cargill campaign and check out our pantry for products that rely on palm oil.

“Palm oil is the leading driver of deforestation in the second-largest standing rainforest, which is in Indonesia,” says Swink, who used to work for the Peace Corps in Cameroon; seeing trucks drive past her house, hauling thousand-year-old trees led her to RAN, headquartered in San Francisco.

“There are three areas of tropical rainforests still left in the world – the Amazon, Indonesia and Malaysia. Then there’s the Congo Basin. … But in Southeast Asia, we’re seeing the fastest rate of deforestation. RAN has been looking at the incredible rate of destruction, intersecting that with climate change. And Indonesia is now the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, after the U.S. and China. But with the USA it’s fossil fuels and transportation that create the emissions. With Indonesia, it’s mostly deforestation. So when you take it all together, palm oil is a really large threat in terms of deforestation leading to climate change.”

As organizations like RAN,, Greenpeace, Rising Tide North America , World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Alliance amplify the clarion call, some companies are taking note. Gucci Group just declared its commitment to abandon paper products (i.e., those tony shopping bags) from Asian Pulp and Paper – and specifically from Indonesian plantations and rainforests, following Tiffany and a few other luxury brands’ leads.

And Cadbury recently announced that as a direct result of a New Zealand zookeepers’ boycott, it has vowed to dump palm oil and return to cocoa butter (but there’s a catch: that’s only in New Zealand).

Burning forest to make way for plantations in Sumatra (Photo: Mark Edwards, WWF-Canon)

Burning forest to make way for plantations in Sumatra (Photo: Mark Edwards, WWF-Canon)

These companies are responding to the dire situation that’s resulted over the past 70 years of deforestation by various industries, mainly logging and agriculture, in these Southeast Asian rainforests.

Aside from the devastating impacts on climate change, the forest destruction is taking a big toll on the biodiversity of the area. World Wildlife Fund estimates that converting natural forest to palm plantations results in the loss of 80 to 100 percent of the mammal, bird and reptile species in these normally rich ecosystems. (For a good graphic depiction of the rainforest losses, see the WWF’s report on Borneo and Sumatra and maps of the region, which show, for instance, that Sumatra has lost 85 percent of its natural forest.)

All this begs the basic question: Why are palm oil derivatives in so many foods and emulsive products, to begin with?

The answer “is easy,” says Brihannala Morgan, an activist with Rising Tide North America who lived in Indonesia for nine years and is now based in the Bay Area, where she is a graduate student in forest and climate policy at UC-Berkeley.

“Palm oil is the cheapest oil in the world, second only to soybean oil,” she says. “It’s about how much oil you can produce per hectare of land, and you can produce more palm oil per hectare than almost any other oil. So the laws of supply and demand apply. …It’s used not only in foods but in industrial lubricants, biofuels. But, in foods, it’s mostly for preserving. I’m not a food chemist, but all these things have to have some kind of oil, and they pick the cheapest, for the highest profit. In most countries besides the United States – and we’re only responsible for five percent of all palm oil consumed – but in other countries, it’s used for a frying oil – particularly in China and India, which have populations that are becoming wealthier and can afford more fried foods.”