Palm oil production has higher carbon cost than previously thought

Palm oil is commonly used in our society but it has a major impact on the environment. According to a new study, the carbon cost when one hectare of forest is cleared to make way for palm oil plantations is equivalent to the carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for nearly 85 per cent of global palm oil production, which is used in processed foods, cosmetics and biofuels.

Such intensive farming of palm oil has a major impact on the environment, with thousands of hectares of rainforest disappearing every year in order to make way for the crop. In 2012, Indonesia had the highest deforestation rate in the world.

However, short-and long-term solutions exist, according to a new study conducted by the EPFL in Lausanne and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).

According to the findings, deforestation should be done only if the wood that is felled can then be used without being burned. In addition, a more abundant layer of vegetation should be left on the ground as a natural fertilizer. Finally, the waste from palm oil mills should be returned to the soil as another form of fertilizer, explained a statement.

Despite these different solutions, the study revealed worrying statistics. It analyzed the carbon costs and benefits of converting rainforests into oil palm plantations, finding that one hectare of converted rainforest land equates to a loss of 174 tons of carbon, and most of this carbon will find its way into the air as CO2.

“The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York in economy class,” explained Thomas Guillaume, a postdoctoral researcher at the EPFL and the lead author of the study.

This loss estimate is higher than the figure published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to quantify the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by oil palm farming, according to the statement.

Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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