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New study finds GHG emissions from palm oil production significantly underestimated; palm oil biofuels could be more climate-damaging than oil sands fuels

When peat swamps are drained for agriculture, the peat begins to decompose, and is an enormous source of carbon emissions. Based on visual interpretation of high-resolution (30 m) satellite images, a new study in the journal Global Change Biology: Bioenergy determined that industrial plantations covered over 3.1 Mha (20%) of the peatlands of Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo in 2010, surpassing the area of Belgium and causing an annual carbon emission from peat decomposition of 230–310 Mt CO2e.

The majority (62%) of the plantations were located on the island of Sumatra, and more than two-thirds (69%) of all industrial plantations were developed for oil palm cultivation, with the remainder mostly being Acacia plantations for paper pulp production. Tropical peatlands cover more than 25 Mha in Southeast Asia and are estimated to contain around 70 Gt of carbon.

Historical analysis shows strong acceleration of plantation development in recent years: 70% of all industrial plantations have been established since 2000 and only 4% of the current plantation area existed in 1990. ‘Business-as-usual’ projections of future conversion rates, based on historical rates over the past two decades, indicate that 6–9 Mha of peatland in insular Southeast Asia may be converted to plantations by the year 2020, unless land use planning policies or markets for products change. This would increase the annual carbon emission to somewhere between 380 and 920 Mt CO2e by 2020 depending on water management practices and the extent of plantations.

—Miettinen et al.

The research team included members from the National University of Singapore; Stichting Deltares, The Netherlands; International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), Washington, DC; and the University of Leicester, UK.

The publication of the study coincides with the close of the comment period on a new US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis of the carbon intensity of palm oil biodiesel. In January, EPA released lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analyses on biodiesel and renewable diesel produced from palm oil that estimated GHG emission reductions of 17% (a mean 81 kg CO2e/mmBtu) and 11% (a mean 87 kg CO2e/mmBtu) respectively for these biofuels compared to the statutory baseline (97 kg CO2e/mmBtu) petroleum-based diesel fuel used in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. Slightly more than half of the GHG emissions for these biofuels in the EPA’s analysis came from land use change. (Earlier post.)

At those levels, palm oil biofuels do not meet the minimum 20% greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction compared to the statutory baseline for petroleum-based diesel performance threshold required for renewable fuel under the RFS program.

However, notes Dr. Chris Malins of the ICCT, one of the study co-authors, the EPA based its assumptions about the amount of peat swamp that would be destroyed by future palm oil expansion on old data, reflecting the development of the palm industry up to 2003. The new work shows that this has led EPA to substantially underestimate the threat to this valuable ecosystem, the ICCT suggested in its comments to the EPA assessment of the palm oil pathway. Even if there is no further acceleration, the Indonesian prediction would be too low by a factor of two, while in Malaysia the situation is currently at least four times worse than EPA’s modeling predicts.

While representatives of the palm oil industry have protested that the EPA findings are too harsh, correcting the analysis to reflect the more up-to-date information on the destruction of peatland suggests that palm oil biodiesel could be more climate-damaging than fuel from the Canadian oil sands.

I suggest that we would expect at least 40 kgCO2e/mmBtu extra, making palm oil biodiesel about 20% worse than the RFS2 fossil baseline [approximately 116 kg CO2e/mmBTU]. That number is in my opinion conservative, and consistent with a slight reduction in the rate of peat conversion. If the acceleration we have seen since 1990 were to continue, the result would be even higher.

—Dr. Chris Malins

As a comparison, a study produced by ICF for the US Department of State’s evaluation of oil sands-derived gasoline and diesel (produced for the Keystone XL pipeline analysis), found, based on an evaluation of multiple studies, GHG emissions for diesel produced from Canadian oil sands crude ranging from an average 100 kg CO2e/mmBTU to an average 110 kg CO2e/mmBTU (converted from g CO2e/MJ). (There is a variance based on production method, etc.)

The effect isn’t only a problem for biodiesel from palm oil. Because vegetable oil markets are closely connected, without reform increasing demand for any vegetable oil biodiesel will have a negative impact on the Southeast Asian peat forests.

The new study used the satellite imagery to map the encroachment of oil palm plantations onto peatlands from 1990 to 2000, from 2000 to 2007, and finally 2007 to 2010. Despite increasing awareness of climate change in that period, the rate of peat destruction was higher in this last 3 year period than ever before.

Everywhere we looked, the drainage of peat to plant palm oil is increasing. In the Sarawak province in Malaysian Borneo, for instance, based on the last 3 years we would expect over 80% of future palm expansion to be at the expense of peat.

—Dr. Chris Malins of the International Council on Clean Transportation

These findings are echoed in a new open-access study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Kim Carlson et al., which found that from 2008-2011 69% of palm oil conversion occurred at the expense of peat, even despite the introduction of a moratorium in 2011.

Existing laws do little to constrain the expansion of palm onto peat. The report states that “On the basis of land allocation maps, a total peatland area of 5.5 Mha, nearly half the total peatland in the area, is formally allocated to conversion to industrial oil palm plantations in Indonesia.” Stronger regulatory restrictions are urgently needed if the loss of these enormous reservoirs of carbon is to be avoided, according to the authors.




This is not the first time that people with an agenda have found ways to make palm oil look devilish. Very few palm tree plantations are in wetlands or peat swamps. If those misleading assumptions are taken out of the equation, the end results could be very different and even better than corn ethanol when everything used to grow corn is fully considered.

It is so easy to make figures lie.


It doesn't matter if the palm plantations go into the peat swamps or not.  If expansion of palm oil results in the peat swamps being drained for any purpose (including displaced demand for other products), it's bad.

Biodiesel from virgin oils is a bad idea anyway.  It's one of the least efficient ways to turn biomass into fuel.


Using twisted/curved solar cells (with 43% more e-output than with flat cells) installed in unused sunny desert land (and other unused sunny areas) to produce massive amount of clean e-energy to recharge 1+ billion electrified vehicles etc would certainly be preferable to most if not all bio-fuels and ICEVs.

Low cost e-energy storage remains to mastered but it will be done, just as low cost ($50-$75) tablet/PCs are currently being built and given to school children in India.


Question: Why is the peat left to decompose after the swamps are drained?

Peat is a biomass, if the idea is to turn biomass into fuel/polymers why not harvest the peat first?

Roger Pham

Low-cost e-energy storage can be done with low-cost electrolyzer to produce H2 to be stored in underground caverns via a H2 pipeline system. It will cost money and labor to build such an infrastructure, but the world is having an increasing unemployment problem right now. Gov. money that is used for welfare and job creation AND Private Money from those top 2% who owns 75% of the country, (those top 2% who don't know what to do with their money that is just sitting there, doing nothing!) those money can be used to build renewable energy infrastructures and storage to serve humanity!

There are enough unemployments world-wide to start deploying renewable energy collectors and give jobs to the younger generation that is seeing YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT LEVEL of 30-50% in Spain, Greek, Italy, South America, and may soon arrive to North America if the economic trend is continuing.

It is a total disconnect to see serious environmental degradation from the use of coal and GHG release from the accelerated use of NG and petroleum in order to save on labor and money, as commanded by the older generation, while the younger generation has no jobs, nothing to do and noting to look forward to...

Everything now is automated and computerized and outsourced! The mining and extraction of fossil fuels require little in the way of labor...unlike the more expensive and maintenance-intensive renewable energy collectors that can create local that can't be outsourced.


Hydrogen is expensive and lossy enough that most storage uses batteries instead.  Production of hydrogen is almost exclusively from steam-reforming of natural gas.

Long-distance transport of hydrogen is very lossy; it is nearly as viscous as methane but has about 1/3 of the energy per volume, forcing a much larger fraction of the embodied energy to be spent to move it.

If electricity is to be moved, wires are the most efficient way to move it.  Hydrogen gas as a storage medium has merit, but direct electrolytic production of ammonia appears feasible and has far greater density and lower leakage.


I have to agree with RP.

The problem remains how to find acceptable ways to use the xx millions unemployed on worthwhile (green?) projects without creating negative secondary effects on a slowly healing economy.

In the 1930s, building roads, bridges and other useful infrastructures had marked success. Could this be done again without an open war with free enterprises? China just finished building a 42.5 Km bridge across a Bay to reduce traveling time. It used 15,000+ workers for 4+ years.

Railroads electrification would be a worthwhile make work project together with modification of the diesel locomotive fleet.

Manufacturing of 10+ million diesel to CNG modification kits and installation in medium and large highway trucks and buses could also put many unemployed to work for the next 10+ years.

Manufacturing and installing many thousands electric quick charge stations across the nation could be worth while.

Manufacturing and installing 200+ million domestic e-charge stations over the next 10+ years would be worth while.

Employment and unemployment is a society choice and is often created by the 3% grappling 90% of the financial resources with huge profit margins and uncontrolled wild speculation. Apple Computer is a perfect example with huge 50%+ profit margin from their recent made in China iPads I, II and HD. Every million dollar pull out of the national economy, 2 to 5 unemployed are created.

Roger Pham

Thanks for your feedback, Harvey.
IMHO, we will wean off fossil fuels the same way we weaned off tobacco, from 50% smoking rate to 19% now. Quite a miraculous feat, considering such an addictive substance as nicotine, and the powerful voting power of 50% of the population.

No doubt you're right about H2's inferior energy density in comparison to NG. However, NG is a fossil fuel, while H2 is the most efficient fuel so far that can be synthesized from renewable energy. Synthetic methane from renewable energy is far less efficient than H2. Likewise, converting H2 to NH2 is only a 50%-efficient process. May be you can provide efficiency data for electrolytic synthesis of NH2 that is more efficient than the 50%-efficient large-scale Haber-Bosch process.

The key to efficient utilization of H2 is end-user efficiency, doubling or even tripling the efficiency of NG utilization as it is used now. Necessity is the mother of invention. The low energy density of H2 forces us to use it efficiently, far more efficiently than any previous fossil fuel that we were very wasteful with. We can do it, and we will, I have no doubt about it!


Good points all.


Yes RP...hydrogen may eventually become part of the energy mix in many places, specially as a stored energy source. However, electricity will gain momentum, specially in the transportation field. Future higher performance lower cost batteries will compete with hydrogen as a storage media. Transporting electricity across the nation is already done and could easily be improved. Of course, we will wean ourselves from liquid fuel and ICEVs as we did from horse carriages and other more primitive ways.

E-P: The same could be said about corn and sugar cane farming pushing out other farming/land styles. Residues may be the only acceptable source of bio-fuel feed stocks, specially when world population grows to 10++ billions.


The use of coal and NG is not done to save on labor and money, it is to reduce the cost of energy (to the people) and it reduces imports.

Doing something inefficiently to create jobs is senseless and will spiral down as GNP is pushed down.

There has been no substitute found for free enterprise to advance science and general wealth.

It is like democracy in this regard - though many here admire and yearn for a Chinese style government (there really IS one born every minute).

Chicago style croney capitalism may bring free enterprise down but even China knows free enterprise is the way to go.

You may admire their melding of capitalism and totalitarianism but what that regeme will force upon it's citzens is not utopia but an upgraded Cuba or N. Korea (and maybe not upgraded).

And it is the inexperienced younger generation that buys iPads, iPhones, Einstein bagels, Starbucks coffee and BMWs.

H2 is the most efficient fuel so far that can be synthesized from renewable energy.
Archaea can generate CH4 from CO2 and electricity at 80% efficiency; I've heard of no electrolyzer that beats that.  The latest is 4- and 5-carbon alcohols from CO2 and electricity, using electrolytic production of formate as the base for chemosynthesis.

Isobutanol and 4-methyl 1-butanol are liquid fuels well-suited to storage.  Hydrogen is a pain in the a$$ by comparison.

converting H2 to NH2 is only a 50%-efficient process.
On the contrary, H2 to NH3 is "downhill" and requires no further energy input.  The losses are rather small.  The Stranded Wind project (site now reduced to a single political message with no links... how idiotic can you get?) claimed electrolytic cells could produce NH3 directly at a smaller overhead than using H2 as feedstock.
The key to efficient utilization of H2 is end-user efficiency
If we only had that, most of our current problems would be solved.
The low energy density of H2 forces us to use it efficiently
It also forces us to use it close to the point of origin, and a host of other restrictions.  At some point, those strictures become a noose.


Archaea can generate CH4 from CO2 and electricity at 80% efficiency; I've heard of no electrolyzer that beats that.

Where do they get the hydrogen? If they start with H2O 80% efficiency is great but if they start with H2 then you have to factor in the 60% efficiency of the electrolyzer: 60% of 80% = 48%.

Roger Pham

Where do they get the CO2? One needs to account for the energy cost of pulling CO2 out of thin air as well. It is going against entropy so I would expect significant energy cost. CO2 capture out of power plant's exhaust comes with energy cost and financial cost as well.

Haber-Bosch process for NH3 synthesis using NG as the H2 source is about 45%-efficient. Using electrolyzed H2, the efficiency is about 35%.

A new experimental solid-state electrolysis of water and N2 at 550 degrees C using catalysts such as Platinum, Palladium, or Ruthenium can improve the efficiency to about 57%. Please note the high temperature and probably high pressure, and the use of very expensive catalysts.
But, since this process is still experimental, we can hope that the efficiency will improve, as well as the substitution of less expensive catalysts.

Perhaps you can provide a better reference?

By contrast, H2 synthesis can now be done using low-cost catalysts and with efficiencies from 75-80% efficiency with the H2 already compressed and pipeline-ready in one step, eliminating the use of mechanical compressors. These hardwares are commercially available.
Anhydrous NH3 is highly caustic and is lethal upon inhalation due to damages to the airway, should fuel spill occurs. H2 is non-toxic and is so light that it flies away rapidly instead of forming NH3-hydrate cloud that hovers around the spill site causing further hazards.

The storage of H2 in underground sites and transportation via pipelines are industrially proven for over a century. The very-low sulfur gasoline and diesel fuel that you are using today are refined using large quantities of H2 in the refining process. H2 pipeline does not cost much more than NG pipeline. When H2 is utilized at much higher efficiencies than NG (home CHP fuelcells and vehicles) you can see that the distribution cost of H2 is no more than NG's distribution cost today.

Electricity can be transported via long-distance HVDC, but it cannot be stored in bulk quantity nor seasonally nor cost-effectively. H2 can be stored locally in bulk quantity at very low cost, and needs not be transported over long-distance, since it can be readily synthesized and stored near the site of end-use. In that respect, H2 distribution can even beat NG that has to be transported over long pipelines from one end of the country to another. Wherever you have sun and wind, you can make H2 and store it locally for later use. Very simple, indeed!

Roger Pham

@Toppa Tom,
When China started accelerating the use of coal in the 80's for rapid industrialization, they have no choice. Cost-effective renewable energy technologies weren't available then. Mainland China are paying a high price for the high pollution from coal-fired power generation, as you well know. They have no choice but to proceed with rapid industrialization to provide jobs for their people in order to prevent social unrest that would lead to regime change, like in the USSR and others.
Now that renewable energy is going to be cost-competitive with coal, they are now rapidly phasing out coal utilization, and ramping up adoption of renewable energy in order to continually provide jobs that are displaced by significant reduction in export-related jobs due to economic collapses elsewhere in the world.

If the USA is not going to do the same, we will be hopelessly behind the curve and the economic collapse here will threaten our already fragile democracy and the American way of life!

Do you recall how much it took to ensure the oil flow from the Middle East to here in the last decade?
1 (ONE) trillion USD.
If this 1 trillion USD is now invested in developing renewable energy and synthetic fuel infrastructures here in the USA in the next decade, can you calculate how much jobs will be created here at home? Instead of paying for foreign contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan who will spend this money elsewhere instead of releasing it back into the US economy? When all cars and trucks can use fuels that are synthesized here at home, we can inject the $400 billion USD used for crude oil import back into the US economy EVERY YEAR!

Please calculate how many jobs that will be create here at home if we now stop importing crude oil! All the investments and constructions of new energy and synthetic fuel infrastructures will be funded and run by PRIVATE money! Not a single dime of tax money need be spent on this new economic paradigm if the gov. is wise enough to enact policies that will encourage these developments.
If that is not the ultimate capitalism, tell me a better capitalistic system that can lead to economic growth, job growth and prosperity?

I'm surprise that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have not touched this issue in this election year.

Henry Gibson

Energy is very cheap. Not only solar and wind but also fossil fuels are free. Gaia has not charged a EURO for all of the coal, oil and trees taken from her, but price speculators including "property owners" have taken many 1,000,000,000s directly and indirectly. If you don't consider 2000 year old trees or bogs fossil fuel, please wait until you have grown another before you harvest it.

Even if the US Government figures are correct and 100 units of fossil energy can produce over 120 units of ethanol energy, total CO2 releases would be less if permanent trees were planted in the maize fields instead and an additional 20 units of fossil oil used to make fuel. The trees may even take up 200-400 units of energy equivalent CO2 on areas that produced 120 units of ethanol energy.

Except for tar sand producers, no oil producer has been targeted for CO2 releases even when they spill many tonnes of oil to be converted by nature to CO2 and flare off tonnes of natural gas.

Italy, Spain, North Africa, Scotland, England, US and many others eliminated their forests for fuel and wood and agriculture. Sending wood ashes to England was profitable for many English colonists in America. Now these countries have bio-diesel mandates to export forest eliminations to all persons in all countries.

No biofuels should be imported by any country or state, nor should any be exported; There is not enough land area in the world to convert the current fossil fuel use even with no food production, and states that require the use of bio-fuels of any kind are commiting a fraud on the world if they are not all produced within its boundaries. Have any people died because maize became too costly for some of them to keep well fed? ..HG..


The simple fact is they need the money and fuel so duh they will expand production as much as they can.

As for corn.. when grown for biofuel its not a food crop and yet it still provides plenty of feed for cattle and thats what most corn in the us is grown for in the first place.

And h2.... as long as they can make money making it and its cheap enough people feel fine running stuff on it... you dont get any say in what it will be used for or what it will come from.

Where do they get the hydrogen?
Straight from water.  Here's the 2009 Science Daily piece.
Where do they get the CO2?
Does it matter?  There are plenty of sources of CO2, including recapture from whatever uses the methane or alcohol.  The gas from landfills and biodigesters is around half CO2.
And h2... you dont get any say in what it will be used for or what it will come from.
Which means you don't get any say about the externalities either.

The world is progressively moving to electricity for transportation, domestic, industrial and commercial uses. The e-energy transportation networks already exist in most countries but may/will have to be improved in due time. It is a very well known mature technology.

Electricity production can come for 10+ sources such as nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, coal, NG, waves, geothermal, bio-fuels, etc. The mix will defer from country to country and from region to region but the trend is to wind, solar, NG, distributed small nuclear plants and many more Hydro facilities in China, Canada, South America, Africa, many Asian countries etc.

Coal fired power plants are going out in many countries.

Wind and Solar cost is going down and will soon compete will other sources. Very effective and efficient Combo (Hydro + Wind + Solar) whereas Hydro water reservoirs become the energy storage units is possible in many places. Properly managed, Wind and Solar energy production is used at 100% and hydro is used for peak loads and low wind/solar production periods only.




The problem is free enterprise as practiced in the US is really Croney Capitalism.

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