Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Palm oil is a net source of CO2 emissions when produced on peatlands

Mongabay: Researchers have confirmed that converting peat forests for oil palm plantations results in a large net release of carbon dioxide, indicating industry claims that palm oil helps fight climate change are unfounded, at least when plantations are established in peatlands.

Performing life cycle analysis of land use change in tropical peatlands, Dr. Susan Page (University of Leicester) and colleagues working on the CARBOPEAT and RESTORPEAT projects found that drained, degraded, and converted peatlands are substantial net sources — not net sinks — of carbon dioxide (CO2). They measured annual CO2 emissions per hectare at 170 metric tons for oil palm plantations and 280 metric tons for acacia pulpwood plantations over the 25-year life cycle. By comparison, natural peat swamp — through tree growth and peat accumulation — acts as a carbon sink, accumulating at least 2.6 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year. Extrapolating for the 420,000 hectares (ha) of oil palm plantations established on peatlands in Malaysia and 2,800,000 ha for Indonesia, the researchers estimate emissions of 3,220 million metric tons of CO2 over the 25-year lifecycle.

Logged peat forest in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.
The researchers say that producing one ton of palm oil on peatland generates 15 to 70 tons of CO2 over 25 years as a result of forest conversion, peat decomposition and emission from fires associated with land clearance.

"Current land use and land practice developments in Southeast Asia give grave cause for concern. While deforestation rates in non-peatland areas are decreasing slightly owing to depletion of forest resources, those on peatlands have been rising for the last 20 years," said Page. "In 2005, 25% of all deforestation in Southeast Asia was on peatlands owing to demand for land on which to establish plantations. Current UNFCCC negotiations in Bali on reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) could offer a crucial opportunity to reduce carbon emissions from tropical peatlands and thus contribute to combating global climate change."

Wetlands International, an NGO that has done extensive work on peatlands in southeast Asia, has found that protection and restoration of peatlands are among the most cost-effective options for slowing global warming, with initial investment at around 15 euro cents ($0.22) for every ton of avoided CO2 emissions. By comparison, carbon credits are presently trading at more than 26 euro ($34) per ton on European exchanges.

Page believes that governments should push peatlands conservation as a step towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

"The Government of Indonesia should regard its peatlands as a 'bank' because they are worth more as biodiversity and carbon stores than oil palm or pulp tree plantations," she explained. "As a first step it should rescind ALL concession licenses that have been (and still are being) granted for new plantations on its peatland, especially those granted by the decentralized local governments without carrying out Environmental Impact Assessments. It is clear with current rates of peatland conversion that the Indonesian Government cannot reduce its massive non-industrial CO2 emissions unless it stops plantation and other agricultural and industrial uses of its peatlands, and takes serious measures to protect the natural resource functions of biodiversity, carbon and water stores of the remaining peat swamp forests."

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