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Study finds GHG emissions associated with palm oil production have been significantly underestimated; implications for carbon intensity of biofuels as well as biofuel policies in Europe

A new study on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the conversion and degradation of peatland in palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia has determined that past studies have generally significantly underestimated emissions associated with palm oil grown on peatland. This has resulted in underestimation of the indirect land use change emissions from many biofuels derived from palm oil, the study concluded.

The study led by a team from the University of Leicester (UK) suggested that 86 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1 (over 50 years) or 100 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1 (over 25 years) represent the best available estimates of typical emissions from peat decomposition in palm plantations.

A number of recent publications have addressed the GHG emissions associated with land use conversion of tropical peat swamp forest to OP [oil palm] plantation. All conclude that while carbon losses from biomass replacement and land clearance are considerable, it is the large and sustained CO2 emissions from drained peat that contribute most to overall emissions and biofuel carbon debts. The values used to estimate peat CO2 emissions have a wide range (19 to 115 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1) and are derived from a variety of sources, including IPCC defaults and a limited number of scientific studies. Dependency on a limited number of flux studies, combined with inappropriate upscaling, has resulted in systematic underestimation of GHG emissions from OP plantations on tropical peat.

...In terms of an uncertainty range, we suggest that likely peat CO2 emissions should be represented by the minimum and maximum values of 54 to 115 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1 for the typical OP drainage depth range of 0.6 to 0.85 m. It should be noted that none of these values explicitly consider local factors promoting GHG emission other than water depth (e.g., fertilization, land use history) or regional geographical variations. The adoption of the best estimate and full uncertainty range suggested here will, however, lead to reduced uncertainty in future assessments conducted at the regional scale.

The majority of previous studies aiming to assess GHG emissions from OP production systems on tropical peatlands have at best based their analyses on values below or towards the lower end of this range, and in all likelihood have significantly underestimated CO2 emissions from drained peats. In terms of biofuel production, it is likely that the true magnitude of the biofuel carbon debt for OP feedstocks produced on tropical peatlands is more substantial than has been previously assumed.

—Page et al.

Tropical peatland is one of the Earth’s most spatially efficient carbon sinks and largest long-term repositories of terrestrial organic carbon. Development of tropical peatland for agriculture and plantations requires radical changes in the vegetation cover. These changes reduce or remove the carbon sink capacity of the peatland system by:

  • lowering of the peat water table, which ensures continuous aerobic decomposition of organic matter (plant litter and peat), resulting in high peat surface CO2 emissions; and

  • greatly reducing or stopping carbon inputs to the peat from biomass.

The study was conducted for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which wished to assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biodiesel production. Biodiesel mandates can increase palm oil demand directly (the European Biodiesel Board recently reported big increases in biodiesel imported from Indonesia) and also indirectly, because palm oil will replace oil from rapeseed or soy in food if they are instead used to make biodiesel.

The University of Leicester researchers carried out the first comprehensive literature review of the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations on tropical peatland in Southeast Asia. In contrast to previous work, this study also provides an assessment of the scientific methods used to derive emissions estimates.

The team discovered that many previous studies were based on limited data without appropriate recognition of uncertainties and that these studies have been used to formulate current biofuel policies.

The findings have been published as an International White Paper from the ICCT: Review Of Peat Surface Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Oil Palm Plantations In Southeast Asia. This ICCT paper was produced as a consultancy report; a scientific version of the research will be submitted for publication in the peer-reviewed academic literature.

Although the climate change impacts of palm oil production on tropical peatland are becoming more widely recognized, this research shows that estimates of emissions have been drawn from a very limited number of scientific studies, most of which have underestimated the actual scale of emissions from oil palm. These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels. When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source.

—Ross Morrison, of the University of Leicester Department of Geography

Growth in palm oil production has been a key component of meeting growing global demand for biodiesel over recent decades. This growth has been accompanied by mounting concern over the impact of the oil palm business on tropical forests and carbon dense peat swamp forests in particular. Tropical peatland is one of Earth’s largest and most efficient carbon sinks. Development of tropical peatland for agriculture and plantations removes the carbon sink capacity of the peatland system with large carbon losses arising particularly from enhanced peat degradation and the loss of any future carbon sequestration by the native peat swamp forest vegetation.

Although there have been a number of assessments on greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil production systems, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from land use have all been based on the results of a limited number of scientific studies. A general consensus has emerged that emissions from peat degradation have not yet been adequately accounted for.

The results of the Leicester study are important because an increase in the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biodiesel from palm oil, even if expansion on peat only occurs indirectly, could negate any savings relative to the use of diesel derived from fossil fuel.

The likely underestimation of emissions from peat in previous assessments has implications for the results of the modeling of the land use impacts of biofuel policies, and hence potentially for the policies themselves. The underestimation or non-inclusion of peat emissions from oil palm expansion in most previous modeling of the iLUC [indirect land use change] impacts of biofuels was noted by JRC (2010). Based on this review, the value of 57 Mg CO2 ha-1 yr-1 proposed by JRC (2010) is also an underestimate (although we note that these authors also propose an upwards revised value of 112 Mg CO2 ha-1 yr-1, which may be an overestimate). This underestimation of peat GHG emissions in the iLUC modeling literature may have contributed significantly to an underaccounting of the indirect land use change GHG emissions of biodiesel, and in particular of biodiesel made from palm oil.

For instance, Al-Riffai et al. (2010) used two emission values—5 and 40 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1, based on IPCC (2006), and Wetlands International (2009a), averaged to 22.5 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 yr-1—to find that peat emissions contributed around 4 g CO2-eq MJ-1 to the carbon intensity of palm biodiesel, and perhaps under 1 g CO2-eq MJ-1 to the carbon intensity of other biodiesel.

With the central value suggested here, those values would have been more like 19 and 5 g CO2-eq MJ-1, respectively. JRC (2010) noted that the estimate of 18% of OP expansion occurring at the expense of peat had also been set too low by Al-Riffai et al. (2010). In that case, correcting up to 33% as suggested by JRC (2010) would create a compound effect and further increase the reported peat contribution to the biodiesel carbon intensities to 35 and 9 g CO2-eq MJ-1 for palm oil biodiesel and other biodiesel, an intensity increase of 31 and 8 g CO2-eq MJ-1, respectively. To place this in context, an increase in carbon intensity of 31 g CO2-eq MJ-1 would subtract 37% from the reportable carbon savings of palm oil biodiesel used in the European Union.

—Page et al.

If these improved estimates are applied to recent International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) modeling of the European biofuel market (LaBorde, 2011), they imply that on average biofuels in Europe will be as carbon intensive as gasoline, with all biodiesel from food crops worse than fossil diesel and the biggest impact being a 60% increase in the land use emissions resulting from palm oil biodiesel. Bioethanol or biodiesel from waste cooking oil, on the other hand, could still offer carbon savings.

This outcome has important implications for European Union policies on climate and renewable energy sources.

We are very excited by the outcomes of our research—our study has already been accepted and used by several scientists, NGOs, economists and policy advisors in Europe and the USA to better represent the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil biodiesel production and consumption.

The findings of this research will be used by organisations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, European Commission and California Air Resources Board to more fully account for greenhouse gas emissions and their uncertainties from biofuel produced from palm oil. This is essential in identifying the least environmentally damaging biofuel production pathways, and the formulation of national and international biofuel and transportation policies.

—Dr. Sue Page, Reader in Physical Geography at the University of Leicester

The research was commissioned by Dr. Chris Mallins of the ICCT. Other contributors to the work were Professor Jack Rieley of the University of Nottingham and chair of the scientific advisory board of the International Peat Society (IPS), Dr. Aljosja Hooijer of Deltares in the Netherlands, and Dr. Jyrki Jauhiainen of the University of Helsinki.

Peat degradation under oil palm is a major source of emissions from biodiesel production. Recognizing that emissions are larger than previously thought will help regulators such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), European Commission (EC) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) identify which biofuel pathways are likely to lead to sustainable greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

—Dr Chris Malins of the ICCT




A real eye opener !!!

What would a similar extensive study find out for Tar Sands crude?

Henry Gibson

One curious fact can be easily discovered; it releases less carbon dioxide to the air if tar sands are used to fuel automobiles and land used to grow corn is used to grow large permanent fast growing trees instead. There are areas of denuded forests in the US and other countries where trees can be started and they will absorb CO2 in very large quantities.

The WATERBOXX from Groasis can establish new trees in seemingly dry territories without permanent irrigation, and there are many places where trees once existed and can exist again without the continuing help of man.

Canada invented the CANDU reactor and it can supply all of the zero carbon heat needed to extract bitument from tar sands.

Perhaps one of you could examine the published figures of the cost of producing electricity with CANDU reactors and then examine the cost of producing hydrogen with electrolysis also considering that the reactor can provide heat for cheaper high temperature electrolysis. This hydrogen may well provide energy at lower cost than is provided at the world market price for oil. The hydrogen can be added to the bitumen for the production of automotive fuels from the bitumen for even lower CO2 cost fuels.

Perhaps China will build many pebble bed reactors that develop high enough temperatures to produce hydrogen from water directly with heat. Or modifications of the lead cooled Rubbia reactor, energy amplifier, can produce high enough temperatures for that purpose without complicated fuel pellets. ..HG..

Henry Gibson

Dakota Gasification in North Dakota in the US sells much of the CO2 that it produces to be pumped into oil fields in Canada. It could start producing methanol instead of methane in a few months from coal and pretend that half of the methanol produced was produced with zero carbon release from the coal source. ..HG..


HG...could the E-Cat reactor eventually do a better job to supply clean heat where required? Secondly, heat can always be transformed into electricity. Home owners could eventually have their own small E-Cat, at a price?

Nothing wrong with re-planting insect resistant trees to replace the trillions we cut down. However, it may be advantageous to recycle forests every so often. Young growing forests absorb more CO2 and are less of a fire hazard. Nano crystaline cellulose could be extracted and used to produce lighter re-enforced plastics for future electrified vehicles etc.


Harvey, great to see you have gotten the light on the massive new change coming. I expect corporate resistance to various LENR power systems will retard progress for a while. But with the US Navy on board and thousands of R&D labs around the world at work on heater/generators and CHP systems - it is only a matter of time.

The GHG issue already starts to fade as we acknowledge a new global energy source that produces ZERO CO2. Once again the Earth's major source of GHG "pollution" will be it's natural eco-systems, oceans, volcanoes, forest fires, and vents.

Of course this puts an end to the AGW alarm and CREATES AN OPPORTUNITY to redirect all that eco-energy to reclaiming rivers, wetlands, forests, and mountain regions scarred by hydro, oil and gas exploitation and grid transmission equipment.

It's going to be a beautiful planet again!


Reel$$...assuming that the production of unlimited clean energy becomes possible, what will the planet look like with over 15 billion people by end of current century or 25 billion or so by 2200? Will we design clean incinerators or find a better to recycle Hollywood style?


HarveyD, you need to work on your negativity. Population stabilization is the entire reason for propping up China! Same for India. Two nations with huge birthrates that will begin to decline as prosperity increases. Why? Historical data shows this and economics of middle class demand less children. Who can PAY for 'em??

2200?? Who the hell wants to hang around Earth that long? I'd rather cruise the Milky Way, maybe take a triop to Arcturus or Beedlejus (sorry spelling too lazy to lookup). Anyway have a nice weekend Harvey.


Harvey, all it takes is water at 250 C or so to break down most organic garbage (lignocellulose) into sugars. Raise the temperature to 550 C and those sugars become light gases and C1-C3 hydrocarbons.

Both iron and nickel combine with carbon monoxide to make carbonyls at fairly low temperatures. Raise the temperature to 200 C or so and they break down to CO and metals again.

All you need to recycle this stuff is cheap heat.


If it ever work as claimed, Rossi's device could supply the low cost heat required. Of course, sugars can be transformed into various chemicals and fuels? Interesting future possibilities.


Thanks for that bit of info EP. We appear to have our cheap heat. Now to find a more efficient conversion to V than thermocouples. Possibly Hagelstein's Micron-gap Thermal Photo-Voltaics approach will yield 50% Carnot.

Or, machine the lattice to capture quantum flux in the reaction.

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