Eco-friendly biodiesel from palm oil

Palm-oil biodiesel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite controversy about its sustainability, says new research.

Vegetable oil biofuels are increasingly being used as an alternative to fossil fuels despite the growing controversy regarding their sustainability. In a new study led by the University of Göttingen, researchers investigated the effect of palm-oil biodiesel on greenhouse gases for the entire life cycle.

The researchers found that using palm oil from first rotation plantations where forests had been cleared to make way for palms actually leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions compared to using fossil fuels. However, there is potential for carbon savings in plantations established on degraded land.

In addition, emissions could be reduced by introducing longer rotation cycles or new oil palm varieties with a higher yield, explains a statement.

The use of vegetable oil-based biofuels has rocketed in recent years because they are considered a “greener” substitute for fossil fuels. Although their sustainability is now increasingly questioned, the demand continues to grow, and this has stimulated the ongoing expansion of oil palm cultivation across the tropics, especially in Indonesia.

“Mature oil palms capture high rates of CO2, but there are serious consequences for the environment from clearing forest. In fact, carbon emissions caused by cutting down forest to plant oil palms are only partially offset by the future carbon capture,” commented lead author Ana Meijide.

The study showed that palm-oil biodiesel from the first-rotation cycle of palms produces 98 per cent more emissions than fossil fuel. Based on these findings, the researchers tested alternative scenarios that could lead to higher greenhouse gas savings compared to current models.

“Longer rotation cycles, such as extending the plantation cycle to 30 or even 40 years compared to the conventional 25 years, or earlier yielding varieties have a substantial positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions – both scenarios are doable and relatively easy to implement,” explained Meijide. “This research highlights how important it is that farming practices and government policies prevent further losses of forest and promote longer rotation cycles.”

Image credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR via Flickr

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