Palm Oil’s Long Shadow

Rainforest Action Network
Credit: Rainforest Action Network

Expanding production of palm oil, a widely used and often hidden ingredient found in chocolate bars, cheese, chips, frozen dinners, face wash, shampoos, shaving creams and countless other products, is driving rainforest destruction and massive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to a new study led by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities. The study, “Carbon Emissions from Forest Conversion by Kalimantan Oil Palm Plantations,” published October 7 in the journal Nature Climate Change, projects that by 2020, palm oil plantations will emit over 558 million metric tons of CO2—more than all the emissions from fossil fuels burned in Canada.“Despite contentious debate over the types and uses of lands slated for oil palm plantations, the sector has grown rapidly over the past 20 years,” said project leader Lisa Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Home to the world’s third-largest tropical forest area, Indonesia is the leading producer of palm oil. The country’s palm oil plantations lie primarily on the island of Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, which occupies a land area nearly the size California and Florida combined.

Since 1990, development of oil palm plantations has cleared about 16,000 square kilometers—an area about the size of Hawaii—in this region. However, according to the study, approximately 80% of land leased for palm oil plantations has yet to be planted—eventually, one-third of all of Kalimantan’s lowlands are expected to be converted to palm monocultures.

Deforestation in Indonesia is particularly problematic from a climate perspective because the local flora holds so much carbon. “When you’re talking about clearing the land, it matters what land you’re clearing,” Curran added. “Some of the most carbon-rich, high-biomass rainfall areas in the world are in Indonesia.”