Thursday, March 6, 2014

Palm Oil's Environmental Impacts: Solutions to Deforestation and Methane Emissions

The palm oil industry is a major cause of deforestation, and new research indicates that palm oil processing is also a significant source of methane emissions. Despite these very serious issues there are solutions to both problems. Palm oil is a widely used edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp of the fruit of the oil palms.

The palm oil industry has earned a bad reputation for its destruction of forests and peatlands. Both of which contribute to climate change as the loss of forests and peatlands adversely impact biodiversity, generates carbon emissions and reduces global carbon sinks. Over the last few years years sustainability certification in the palm oil industry has been addressing some of these deforestation concerns.

Unilever was criticized because the companies they used to source palm oil were clearing rainforests and carbon-dense peatlands. After some pressure, Unilever addressed the problem by flexing its supply chain muscles and dropping Sinar Mas Agro Resources and SMART. In 2010, Unilever doubled the amount of the palm oil it draws from sustainable sources. According to Unilver's most recent sustainability report, the company now gets all of its palm oil from sustainable sources.

In 2011, the World Bank suspended lending to all oil palm plantation projects, after the Wilmar Group, was found to be environmentally irresponsible. Cadbury New Zealand stopped using palm oil altogether after consumer complaints. This kind of public pressure not only arrested the clear cutting of forests in these areas, it has strengthened the market for sustainable palm.

In response to pressure from Greenpeace and other organizations, Wilmar International, the world's largest palm oil trader recently announced a No Deforestation Policy. The policy has the potential to be a landmark win for the world's forests and the people that depend on them for their livelihoods.

Efforts to reign-in the palm oil industry have met with considerable resistance. A group known as Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity (CAGP), (a front-group formed in August of 2010), are behind a campaign they call "Pulp Wars." They attack environmental groups and corporations that have agreed to stop sourcing unsustainable palm oil from Indonesia.

The latest adverse environmental impact associated with the palm oil industry is methane. This is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) that by some estimates is as much as 72 times as destructive as carbon dioxide. According to research published in the Journal of Nature Climate Change, waste water produced during the processing of Palm oil releases massive quantities of methane. The study indicates that the methane produced by a single palm oil waste water lagoon during a year is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 passenger vehicles. The analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder suggest that methane emissions from palm oil waste water equal 30 percent of all fossil fuel emissions from Indonesia.

Due to its environmental impacts the palm oil industry is currently being subjected to a great deal of scrutiny. In response many companies in the sector are seeking sustainability certification. However, this certification does not address waste water emissions.

The researchers suggest that the methane should be captured and used as a source of renewable energy. The amount of methane biogas that went uncollected from palm oil waste water lagoons last year alone could have met a quarter of Malaysia’s electricity needs.

Using palms to make energy is nothing new. Microbiologist Willie Smits is the founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which not only works to help orphaned or imperiled apes, but also helps locals learn sustainable farming methods and the benefits of reforestation. Smits also takes part in the Masarang Foundation, an amazingly innovative social entrepreneurship enterprise that uses thermal energy to turn sugar palm juice into sugar and ethanol, providing jobs and power to the community while preserving the local forests.

Using palm oil emissions from lagoons is different in that it can generate energy by capturing methane that would otherwise contribute to climate change.

Related
Video - The Slaughter of Orangutans for Palm Oil
Proctor & Gamble Sustainability Journey
Campaign Succeeds in Pressuring P&G into Sourcing Sustainable Palm Oil

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