According to a new study published in the journal Global Change Biology: Bioenergy, greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil production have been severely underestimated. It turns out palm oil biofuels could actually be more damaging to the environment than oil sands production.
A major factor in the greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil production comes from when peat swamps are initially drained for palm-based agriculture. When the peat starts decomposing, it creates massive amounts of carbon-based emissions.
The industrial plantations for palm oil production are mostly located on the island of Sumatra (62%) and over two-thirds of the plantations were developed for palm oil cultivation. Satellite images of the peatlands on Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo from 2010 show it has a cumulative area larger than Belgium. The annual carbon emissions from peat decomposition from this huge area are put around 230-310 Mt CO2e.
In addition, this study’s release happens to coincide with the close of the comment period on a new EPA analysis of the carbon intensity of palm oil biodiesel.
The EPA concluded the lifecycle greenhouse gas analyses on the palm oil-based biodiesel and renewable diesel derived from palm oil had 17% and 11% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions respectively, which does not meet the minimum amount of 20% used in the Renewable Fuel Standard program. A bit more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions for these biofuels came from land use change.
While the palm oil industry is protesting these findings, even if more up-to-date information were to be used, the rate of peatland destruction still suggests palm oil biodiesel is more environmentally damaging than Canadian oil sands.