Frontiers: The palm oil problem

Oil Palm Leaf

Think about your morning routine. You may take a shower or wash your face with soap. Afterward, you may sit down with a bowl of cereal, or perhaps you grab a granola bar as you head off to work or school. While you may not think about it, chances are you’ve used palm oil at least once before you make it out the door.

Found in everything from soaps to breakfast foods, palm oil is all around us and becoming even more ubiquitous. Kimberly Carlson, an Institute on the Environment postdoctoral research scholar, discussed the sustainability issues and opportunities of palm oil production in her Sept. 25 Frontiers on the Environment presentation.

Since expanding rapidly in the early 1990s, palm oil production has been identified as a major source of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, prompting environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network to launch campaigns against companies using or producing palm oil.

“Oil palm is clearing forests – or we believe that it is – and it is causing biodiversity loss and it is emitting carbon dioxide. So there’s a problem,” Carlson said. “Oil palm is one of those situations where there is a great benefit of this plant to the globe, but we have to be very careful about how we use it.”

Carlson’s research focused on Kalimantan, a hotspot of oil palm expansion on the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Production is relatively concentrated in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 44 and 39 percent of the world’s production, respectively.

“The big question is: What is oil palm clearing?” Carlson said. “It could be clearing non-peatlands; it could be clearing areas that are not forested, and as of about three or four years ago, we really didn’t know. There was no definitive research on the land sources for oil palm plantations.”

Carlson filled that knowledge gap by processing Landsat images and conducting field work. She found that about 50 percent of land cleared for oil palm production comes from intact forests, with logged forests and agroforests following at about 22 percent each.

She also estimates that oil palm production accounts for 3 to 12 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions. That number could be as high as 38 percent by 2020, making Indonesia’s oil palm emissions equivalent to Canada’s total carbon emissions.

But while her research verified some of the longstanding environmental concerns surrounding palm oil production, Carlson believes there is reason to be optimistic. International assistance to fund moratoriums on new oil palm leases and efforts to implement government policies in nations looking to expand oil palm production are all opportunities to make the industry more sustainable. Additionally, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies producers who meet a set of sustainability standards. RSPO is gaining traction in the United States as well as the European Union.

“This particular industry has suffered from a lack of innovation and I think there are many solutions out there that haven’t been explored or thought of simply because the industry itself is making a huge amount of money and they have no incentive to change,” Carlson said. “So if there can be a way to actually innovate and solve this palm oil problem and figure out a way to produce palm oil as well as conserve the natural resources that we find important, that would be an ideal solution instead of these polarized issues of, ‘It’s great or it’s terrible.’ There’s probably a middle ground there.”

Carlson did her work while a student at Yale University as part of a project led by Lisa Curran at Stanford University.

Watch the full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.