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.
Miettinen, J., Hooijer, A., Shi, C., Tollenaar, D., Vernimmen, R., Liew, S. C., Malins, C. and Page, S. E. (2012), Extent of industrial plantations on Southeast Asian peatlands in 2010 with analysis of historical expansion and future projections. GCB Bioenergy. doi: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2012.01172.x
Kimberly M. Carlson, Lisa M. Curran, Dessy Ratnasari, Alice M. Pittman, Britaldo S. Soares-Filho, Gregory P. Asner, Simon N. Trigg, David A. Gaveau, Deborah Lawrence, and Hermann O. Rodrigues (2012) Committed carbon emissions, deforestation, and community land conversion from oil palm plantation expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200452109