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The hidden destroyer: palm oil demand increases deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions

By Andrew MCDOUGALL , 08-Oct-2012
Last updated on 08-Oct-2012 at 17:21 GMT

Bye bye rainforest? Palm oil demand contributes to deforestation and climate change.
Bye bye rainforest? Palm oil demand contributes to deforestation and climate change.

Increasing demand for palm oil is destroying the rainforest and accounts for ‘massive carbon dioxide emissions’ according to a new study led by American researchers.

It is almost impossible to get away from palm oil; you have eaten it, rubbed it into your skin, or even fed it to your pets.

Whilst it is heavily used in the food industry it is also widespread in cosmetics, soap and shampoos, and is also responsible for some of the most destructive deforestation of current times, and its production is contributing to climate change, says the study.

‘Significant’ carbon dioxide emissions

Researchers at Stanford and Yale, say that the expansion of palm oil production is leading to an increase in deforestation of the rainforest in Indonesian Borneo and has seen high amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Published online in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study claims that deforestation for the development of oil palm plantations is becoming a “globally significant source of carbon dioxide emissions”; projected to contribute more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020 - an amount greater than all of Canada's current fossil fuel emissions.

"Despite contentious debate over the types and uses of lands slated for oil palm plantations, the sector has grown rapidly over the past 20 years," said project leader Lisa M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford.

Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest tropical forest area, is the leading producer of palm and palm kernel oil; but is also one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, due to rapid loss of carbon-rich forests.

20-year study

Led by Curran, the team generated the first comprehensive maps of oil palm plantation expansion in Borneo (also known as Kalimantan) from 1990 to 2010, by combining field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images

They then quantified the types of land that have been cleared for oil palm plantations, and worked out the carbon emissions and sequestration from oil palm agriculture.

"A major breakthrough occurred when we were able to discern not only forests and non-forested lands, but also logged forests, as well as mosaics of rice fields, rubber stands, fruit gardens and mature secondary forests used by smallholder farmers for their livelihoods," said Kimberly Carlson, a Yale doctoral student and lead author of the study.

"With this information, we were able to develop robust carbon bookkeeping accounts to quantify carbon emissions from oil palm development."

Combined with results generated from their more detailed district-level study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers emphasize that sustainably producing palm oil - a stated goal of the Indonesian palm oil industry - will require re-evaluation of awarded oil palm plantation leases located on forested lands.

 

Source: Nature Climate Change
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1038/nclimate1702
“Carbon emissions from forest conversion by Kalimantan oil palm plantations”
Authors: Kimberly Carlson, Lisa Curran, Gregory Asner, Alice McDonald Pittman, Simon Trigg, J. Marion Adeney

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