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A Tipping Point for Palm Oil, Deforestation, and Peat?

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History is happening all the time, but usually without us realizing it. Only rarely do we experience a change so dramatic that we know that what’s happening today will be remembered fifty or a hundred years in the future. The kind of thing that you’ll tell your grandchildren about. This is especially the case for so-called “tipping points,” celebrated in both scientific and popular writing. Usually, you only realize that something was a tipping point after you’re well past it. But sometimes…

It seems like we just might be on the brink of a tipping point for the palm oil industry, a fast-growing driver of deforestation and the destruction of peat swamps – and thus a major source of global warming pollution.

Until recently, most companies have been content just to buy palm oil certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which allowed continued deforestation and peat clearing. But over the past six months, we’ve seen major players in the industry commit to truly eliminating deforestation and peat clearing from their supply chains.

Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), which respectively trade about 45 percent and about 10 percent of the world’s palm oil, have pledged to move to zero-deforestation and zero-peat throughout their entire supply chains. And although there’s been less movement towards zero deforestation at the ends of the supply chains – the consumer goods companies from whom we, the consumers, buy thousands of products containing palm oil  — companies such as Kellogg, L’Oréal, and Hershey’s have made commitments just since last November.

This week UCS released its first palm oil scorecard report, showing which consumer goods companies are the leaders in this new wave. It shows who’s making history, tipping the balance toward ending deforestation – and who needs to catch up.

Palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Source: Sharon Smith, UCS.

Palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Source: Sharon Smith, UCS.

Posted in: Biofuel, Food and Agriculture, Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , ,

About the author: Doug Boucher is an expert in preserving tropical forests to curtail global warming emissions. He has been participating in United Nations international climate negotiations since 2007 and his expertise has helped shape U.S. and U.N. policies. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan. See Doug's full bio.

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  • Doug Boucher

    Jan,

    Thanks for your comment. Although this wasn’t the emphasis of my post, there are actually some important problems I have with that aspect of palm oil production. They include:

    1) Replanting oil palm trees doesn’t create a forest, but just maintains a monoculture plantation. In terms of biodiversity, these are much poorer than natural forests.

    2) The liquid waste from palm oil production is an important source of water pollution.

    3) Although there is the POTENTIAL to produce methane from the waste, this is rarely done. And since methane is a very powerful greenhoouse gas — 25 times as potent per molecule as CO2 — leakage of the methane, even in small amounts, can be a cause of further global warming pollution.

    The major problems with current palm oil production, from a climate point of view, are the clearing of forest and peat, but these other issues are important too.

    Doug

  • Jeri Skinner

    Deforestation…replanting trees the oil comes from that lead to:
    Mar 11, 2014 · The liquid waste of palm is actually potential to produce methane gas which can be used as an alternative energy source.

    And your problem with this is?

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