View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Stanford researchers show oil palm plantations are clearing carbon-rich tropical forests in Borneo
Expanding production of palm oil, a common ingredient in processed foods, soaps and personal care products, is driving rainforest destruction and massive carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new study led by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities.
The study, published online Oct. 7 in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that deforestation for the development of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo is becoming a globally significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Plantation expansion is projected to contribute more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020 – an amount greater than all of Canada’s current fossil fuel emissions.
Indonesia is the leading producer of palm and palm kernel oil, which together account for more than 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil use, and which can be used for biodiesel. Most of Indonesia’s oil palm plantation expansion is occurring on the island of Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, which occupies a land area nearly the size California and Florida combined. Plantation leases, covering 32 percent of Kalimantan’s lowlands outside of protected areas, represent a major land bank that is slated for development over the next decade, according to the study.
In 2010 alone, land-clearing for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – an amount equivalent to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles.
Home to the world’s third-largest tropical forest area, Indonesia is also one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, due to rapid loss of carbon-rich forests and peatlands. Since 1990, development of oil palm plantations has cleared about 16,000 square kilometers of Kalimantan’s primary and logged forested lands – an area about the size of Hawaii. This accounts for 60 percent of Kalimantan’s total forest cover loss in that time, according to the study’s authors.
“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 M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. By combining field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images, the study evaluated lands targeted for plantations and documented their carbon emissions when converted to oil palm.