Found in everything from shampoo to donuts, palm oil is now the most common vegetable oil in the world—and also one of the world’s leading deforestation drivers. It’s also being used to fuel our automobiles. The controversial product has given new meaning to the old campaign sloga, “put a tiger in your tank.” In fact, the palm oil industry is driving the highly endangered Sumatran tiger and other species towards extinction.
In defense of our planet’s vanishing biodiversity, European lawmakers approved draft measures last Wednesday to reform the power market there and reduce energy consumption, with the plan including a ban on the use of palm oil in motor fuels starting in 2021.
Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm producer, said on Monday it would work with other producing countries to voice “strong concerns” to the World Trade Organization, following the European Union’s move to back a ban on using palm oil to make biofuels. Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, joined the outcry against the ban, which is aimed at preserving massive tracts of tropical rainforests and countless endangered species that rely on them for habitat.
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, which thrives in humid climates. Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce nearly 90 percent of the world’s palm oil, called the move discriminatory and said there should be fair treatment for all vegetable oils.
A large portion of European palm oil imports is used to make biofuels, giving the industry’s top two producers cause for concern as they fear overall demand will fall. Palm oil exports are a key source of revenue for Malaysia and Indonesia. The European Union is their second-biggest market after India.
Malaysia’s trade minister called the move a “regressive step which will fuel further uncertainty surrounding global trade,” according to a statement on Monday evening.
“Malaysia will intensify collaboration with other palm oil producing countries to consider more concerted efforts to voice our strong concern before the various committees under the WTO,” said Mustapa Mohamed, minister of international trade and industry, in the statement, adding that the ministry would raise the issue with two committees in March and April.
One huge source of global warming emissions associated with palm oil is the draining and burning of the carbon-rich swamps known as peatlands. Peatlands can hold up to 18 to 28 times as much carbon as the forests above them; when they are drained and burned, both carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere—and unless the water table is restored, peatlands continue to decay and release global warming emissions for decades.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the burning of peatlands releases a dangerous haze into the air, resulting in severe health impacts and significant economic losses. Each year, more than 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia can be attributed to particulate matter exposure from landscape fires, many of which are peat fires.
Beyond its global warming and human health impacts, palm oil production also takes a toll on biodiversity and human rights. Only about 15 percent of native animal species can survive the transition from primary forest to plantation. Among the species vulnerable to palm oil expansion are orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants. Furthermore, palm oil growers have also been accused of using forced labor, seizing land from local populations, and other human rights abuses.
There has been significant movement from Southeast Asian governments to address palm oil impacts, though there is still much to be done. In 2010, Indonesia established a moratorium on new concessions for oil palm, timber and logging operations on primary forests and peatlands. In addition, Indonesia has responded to worsening haze conditions by calling for a halt to clearance and drainage of peatlands, and for the restoration of those already drained. Malaysia has also begun to act to protect some of its forests, though its protections thus far have not been as strong as Indonesia’s.
On the private-sector side, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)was formed to bring oil producers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders together to improve the sustainability of palm oil production. However, current RSPO standards fall short in important respects. For instance, while primary forests are protected under RSPO regulations, secondary, disturbed, or regenerating forests are left unprotected. Peatlands are also given limited protection under RSPO guidelines. So “RSPO-certified” does not necessarily mean “deforestation-free.”