November 11, 2007
Rising Palm Oil Demand Destroying Rainforests

A new Greenpeace report Cooking The Climate highlights the huge amount of carbon dioxide getting released into the atmosphere as a result of rainforest destruction. Destruction of rain forests for palm oil plantation production is a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenpeace investigations centred on the tiny Indonesian province of Riau on the island of Sumatra which contains 25 per cent of Indonesia's palm oil plantations. Its peat swamps and forests are among the world's most concentrated carbon stores.

They contain an estimated 14.6bn tonnes of carbon and their destruction would release the equivalent of total global greenhouse gas emissions for a year.

Greenpeace claims the burning of Indonesia's peatlands and forests releases 1.8bn tonnes of greenhouse gases annually - equal to four per cent of the global total - even though it occupies 0.1 per cent of the land on Earth.

Note that the push for biomass energy from Brazil and other equatorial countries is leading to huge CO2 emissions as forests get ripped down and burned. A lot of this is happening to feed a growing population of humans. Also, Asian industrialization is increasing the amount of spending money people have for food and so Chinese, Indians, and others are spending more on types of foods (e.g. meats) that require more land usage to produce. This increases food imports by these countries and forest destruction by food exporters.

Making a bad trend even worse, some Westerners who pose as environmentalists are promoting biomass energy usage. Well, because of the CO2 released by rainforest clearing equatorial region biomass production expansion causes a net boost in CO2 emissions. So people who worry about global warming and therefore advocate biodiesel are not just wiping out species (and I'm not trying to belittle the importance of this problem). They are increasing atmospheric concentrations of a gas whose rise they view as a big problem.

Fossil fuels burning attracts a lot of attention for its effect on global temperatures. But Greenpeace says that forest destruction is also very important for global climate warming.

About three million hectares (7.5 million acres) of these peatland forests are earmarked for conversion to palm oil plantations over the next decade, Greenpeace said. This "climate bomb" is ticking loudly in the run-up to December's United Nations' climate change meeting in Bali, which is expected to debate forests' role in accelerating -- and slowing -- climate change, said Sue Connor, Greenpeace International Forests Campaigner.

"(If the Riau peatlands are cleared) it would wipe out any chance we have of keeping the temperature increase below two degrees Celsius," she said, referring to a threshold given by the UN's climate panel. Palm oil is used in anything from body lotions and toothpaste to chocolate bars, crisps and as a component of biofuels, such as biodiesel.

I am more concerned about the destruction of habitats and species. My guess is that CO2 emissions will peak some time in the next 20 years and then decline as fossil fuels reserves depletion causes fossil fuels extraction to decline. This will happen first for oil, then natural gas, and eventually even coal.

Don't go getting happy at the taste of a KitKat bar.

Indonesia — If, as you read this, you're tucking into a KitKat or dipping into a tube of Pringles, you might be interested to know that these products contain palm oil that is linked to the destruction of forests and peatlands in Indonesia. As our new report "How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate" shows, it's a recipe for disaster.

The manufacturers of these products - Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever - are sourcing their palm oil from suppliers who aren't picky about where they site their plantations. As the volunteers at the Forest Defenders Camp in Sumatra have seen, this includes tearing up areas of pristine forest then draining and burning the peatlands.

Continued rapid Asian industrialization, population growth in the less developed countries, and growing use of palm oil for biofuels all are feeding the continued destruction of the rainforests. The rainforest trees are getting cut down for wood. Crops are being planted in cleared out areas for human food, animal feed, fiber for textiles, and biomass energy.

Industrialization, population growth, and a misguided attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are not the only forces driving this trend. Rising energy demand is colliding with the world oil production plateau (and a decline that could start any year now). The oil production plateau and decline are going to increase the destruction of rainforests for a few reasons:

  • The demand for biomass energy will rise as the price of oil rises. Huge areas of land will get shifted into sugar cane and other biomass energy crops.
  • Yield per acre will stagnate and decline as the cost of fertilizer (made from fossil fuels) rises. So more acres will be put into production to compensate.
  • Rising costs of pumping water will reduce the amount of water available for irrigation and therefore reduce yield per acre and therefore increase land usage for farming. Increased demand for water for hydroelectric power might exert a similar effect.

Borneo is also getting cleared for crop production.

I am staying at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the middle of the largest surviving area of primary forest in Sabah. Today, palm-oil plantations cover most of north Borneo, and lorries laden with hardwood trundle in convoys from other remnants of jungle. But the Sabah state government has decreed a 30-year ban on logging from 2008, and in the Danum Valley, 175 square miles of lowland rainforest have been designated a protected reserve.

Brazil's rainforests are also getting cleared for crop production.

While the mention of Amazon destruction usually conjures up images of vast stretches of felled and burned rainforest trees, cattle ranches, and vast soybean farms, some of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest are barely perceptible from above. Selective logging -- which opens up the forest canopy and allows winds and sunlight to dry leaf litter on the forest floor -- and 6-inch high "surface" fires are turning parts of the Amazon into a tinderbox, putting the world's largest rainforest at risk of ever-more severe forest fires. At the same time, market-driven hunting is impoverishing some areas of seed dispersers and predators, making it more difficult for forests to recover. Climate change -- and its forecast impacts on the Amazon basin -- further looms large over the horizon.

In order to at least slow habitat destruction we need to accelerate the development of non-fossil fuels and non-biomass energy sources. Nuclear power and not biomass energy is a friend of the environment.

We also need to try ways to slow population growth in the less developed countries. The projected rise of the human population to 9 billion people is going to be a multi-decade environmental disaster in slow motion.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 11 02:12 PM  Energy Biomass


Comments
HellKaiserRyo said at November 11, 2007 5:02 PM:

"Don't go getting happy at the taste of a KitKat bar.

Indonesia — If, as you read this, you're tucking into a KitKat or dipping into a tube of Pringles, you might be interested to know that these products contain palm oil that is linked to the destruction of forests and peatlands in Indonesia. As our new report "How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate" shows, it's a recipe for disaster.

The manufacturers of these products - Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever - are sourcing their palm oil from suppliers who aren't picky about where they site their plantations. As the volunteers at the Forest Defenders Camp in Sumatra have seen, this includes tearing up areas of pristine forest then draining and burning the peatlands."

Yeah Randall, it is made by slaves (well a portion of the chocolate is).

http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2003/02/14/chocolate/index.html

aa2 said at November 12, 2007 2:01 AM:

Don't know how long I've been telling alleged environmentalists that their ideas would be far more damaging to the environment then what we are already doing. eg... very low intensity organic farming versus high production commercial farming. Or ethanol versus oil..

Or endless miles of ugly, loud, bird killing wind mills with endless service roads cut out of the natural landscape going to each one.. versus nuclear power plants.

Long story short the environemntalists have been so dead wrong with their solutions that imo they do not even deserve a seat at the table. The sad part too is there are true environmentalists like Randall who the media and others could contact for their opinions for the pro-environment point of view in stories.

reanimator said at November 12, 2007 2:34 PM:

High intensity farming = soil erosion. Fact is, soil farming generally, whether chemical or organic, is a very bad way to do food production... much less cattle grazing which is 10x worse. Genetic engineered produce done in multi-tiered environmentally controlled, robotically operated, plants is the only way to go, eventually. If anything, the slow malthusian curve makes it so.

TTT said at November 12, 2007 5:32 PM:

The answer to everything is for people to reduce meat consumption dramatically.

1) This saves forests by reducing agricultural land that is used for animal feed.
2) This reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
3) This increases life expectancy, reduces many types of cancer, obestiy, heart disease, etc.
4) This stimulates the economy as fruits and vegetables are far cheaper than red meat.
5) This conserves water

I like a good steak too, but this really is the answer to the above 5 problems. No meaningful sacrifice is easy, but this one really would make a difference.

Also, there is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs to make simulated meat from soy, wheat gluten, etc. I am surprised more products along these lines don't already exist.

HellKaiserRyo said at November 12, 2007 6:05 PM:

Good idea TTT... I too enjoy steak although I do not see any real reason for me to eat it anymore. I am unable to abjure fish from my diet.

I suppose a strategy for limiting population growth includes feeding the world's poor. Provide foreign aid that promotes brain development (such as DHA fortified formula for infants and children and clean water). Yes, I know it will not increase their intelligence to that of caucasians (as argued by Richard Lynn), but more education means they will have less children.

Randall Parker said at November 12, 2007 6:47 PM:

TTT,

In order for something to be "The answer to everything" it has to be within the realm of the possible. Getting everyone to voluntarily abjure meat is firmly outside of the realm of the possible.

People already have health reasons to cut back on red meat. They still eat huge quantities. They can very directly benefit just themselves by cutting back on meat. But they live for the short term and go for the immediate pleasure of the taste. Getting them to cut back on meat to help save baboons or tigers or bird species just isn't in the cards.

HellKaiserRyo,

Propaganda can help some. Eat less meat. Have fewer babies. But who is going to fund the propaganda? Most of the world isn't ruled by the Mandarins in Beijing - at least not yet. Still, maybe the Chinese government will eventually see it as in their interests to convince the masses of the world to eat less meat and have fewer babies.

back40 said at November 12, 2007 6:49 PM:

Managed grazing of ruminants is much more benign than any sort of cropping from an environmental perspective. Soils grow ever more fertile as organic matter accumulates, sequestering carbon, while supporting a highly diverse ecosystem. This is how mother nature manages her swards, a method she learned through long experiment. It works a treat.

This isn't true for non-ruminants such as poultry, hogs and most fishes. They have inefficient digestive systems, like people do, and can't live off the land as well. They need starchy foods such as grain rather than high cellulose foods such as grass and weeds. There are fishes that eat the equivalent of grasses, algae, but it's top predators like salmon and trout that get farmed most often.

The redder your meat the better for the environment so long as it isn't raised in a factory that foolishly uses field and row crops such as maize and soya. It degrades the meat too since it isn't a healthful diet for them.

Bigelow said at November 13, 2007 12:47 PM:

"Or endless miles of ugly, loud, bird killing wind mills..."

Perhaps misinformed.

“Wind farms constructed in western states in the 1980s and '90s were blamed for killing migrating birds, but better positioning of the turbines means it's rarely an issue now, National Audubon Society Marketing Director Nancy Severance said. Audubon has taken a position of support for properly located wind farms, she said.”
http://www.dekalb-chronicle.com/articles/2007/08/19/news/news02.txt

“Contact with wind turbines represented less that one percent of the total number of human-caused bird deaths in Erickson’s study.”
Wind Power vs. Wildlife
http://www.bayweekly.com/year07/issuexv14/earthtalkxv14.html

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