Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe
By Paul Homewood
This is a long, but very readable piece from the New York Times Magazine:
I have only included the opening section, plus a few relevant paragraphs, but I would recommend reading it in full:
The fields outside Kotawaringin village in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, looked as if they had just been cleared by armies. None of the old growth remained — only charred stumps poking up from murky, dark pools of water. In places, smoke still curled from land that days ago had been covered with lush jungle. Villagers had burned it all down, clearing the way for a lucrative crop whose cultivation now dominates the entire island: the oil-palm tree.
The dirt road was ruler straight, but deep holes and errant boulders tossed our tiny Toyota back and forth. Trucks coughed out black smoke, their beds brimming over with seven-ton loads of palm fruit rocking back and forth on tires as tall as people. Clear-cut expanses soon gave way to a uniform crop of oil-palm groves: orderly trees, a sign that we had crossed into an industrial palm plantation. Oil-palm trees look like the coconut-palm trees you see on postcards from Florida — they grow to more than 60 feet tall and flourish on the peaty wetland soil common in lowland tropics. But they are significantly more valuable. Every two weeks or so, each tree produces a 50-pound bunch of walnut-size fruit, bursting with a red, viscous oil that is more versatile than almost any other plant-based oil of its kind. Indonesia is rich in timber and coal, but palm oil is its biggest export. Around the world, the oil from its meat and seeds has long been an indispensable ingredient in everything from soap to ice cream. But it has now become a key ingredient of something else: biodiesel, fuel for diesel engines that has been wholly or partly made from vegetable oil.
Finally we emerged, and as we crested a hill, the plantations fell into an endless repetition of tidy bunches stretching for miles, looking almost like the rag of a Berber carpet. Occasionally, a shard of an old ironwood tree shot into the air, a remnant of the primordial canopy of dense rain forest that dominated the land until very recently.
Our driver, a 44-year-old island native and whistle-blower named Gusti Gelambong, had brought us here to show us the incredible destruction wrought by the growing demand for palm oil. The oldest male among nine siblings, he was modestly built but exuded a wiry strength. His father, he told us, was a king of one of Borneo’s dozens of Dayak tribes, the sixth descendant of the sultan of Old Kotawaringin, and his mother came from a line of warriors who served in the Indonesian special forces. In 2001, he said, he took part in a brutal ethnic cleansing of Indonesians who had moved in from the nearby island of Madura. He macheted his way through the nearby town of Pangkalan Bun, slaughtering dozens of people. He felt no remorse about the violence. But the palm-oil companies, Gelambong said, were much stronger than the Madurese. As we approached an intersection, we could see two plantation guards lying back in a shack, rifles propped against their knees. He sped past the guards, averting his eyes.
Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.
The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.
We arrived at another plantation and stopped near where a stream coursed through the bog. People still lived here: A mother bathed two children beneath a culvert, and a shirtless young boy ran through row after row of identical young palms in the distance, surrounded by dragonflies and sparrows. The uniformity of the world he was growing up in was striking, like the endless plains of drilling rigs in an East Texas oil field. It was, in a way, an astounding achievement, the ruthless culmination of mankind’s long effort to extract every last remaining bit of the earth’s seemingly boundless natural wealth. But it was also frightening. This was what an American effort to save the planet looked like. It was startlingly efficient, extremely profitable and utterly disastrous.
2. ‘Oh, My God, What the Hell Is Happening Here?’
The last thing anyone expected from President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address was a proposal for the largest-ever cut in the nation’s use of gasoline. The president was no climate champion — he had backed out of the Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office in 2001 — but he did favor what he called “energy independence.” He had declared the United States “addicted” to foreign oil, yet dependence on Middle Eastern fuel continued. Hurricane Katrina, and the lingering damage it did to oil pipelines and refineries, had pushed up gas prices, renewed fears of global warming and kept a firm thumb on the economy.
Now, Bush proposed, homegrown energy could be drawn from the rural places most in need of an economic boost. Clean-coal initiatives would generate the electricity of the future, but it was biofuels — in particular ethanol, which is largely distilled from corn, and biodiesel, made with vegetable oil — that would power the vehicles of the future. Within 10 years, the country would replace 35 billion gallons of petroleum, or one-fifth of all the gas and diesel burned, with fuel made from plants. The measure, as he put it, would confront “the serious challenge of global climate change.” Unsaid, but clear to anyone paying attention, was that it would also please America’s agriculture industry, which had been lobbying for ethanol and advanced biofuel research for years. The House chamber erupted in applause.
On the night of the president’s address, Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud.
Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest. Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.
Scientists and lawyers who study environmental impact often deploy “carbon-life-cycle analysis” to determine just how much carbon a given product is removing from, or introducing to, the environment over the course of its production and consumption. When a truck burns biodiesel, the carbon emissions that come from its tailpipe aren’t much different from those of a truck burning petroleum. But a part of the biodiesel emissions aren’t counted, because — in theory — they have been balanced out: Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, and fuel experts subtract that sequestered carbon from the tailpipe emission, completing a transaction that they say balances at zero.
In ideal circumstances — unvegetated land planted for the first time — this balancing out really happens. When corn grows, it soaks up carbon, and when it is consumed (whether as food or fuel), it releases that carbon back into the air. But the analysis breaks down when faced with the reality of land use. Almost everywhere in the world, planting more corn or soy for biofuel would involve creating more farmland, which in turn would involve cutting down whatever was already growing on that land. And that would mean releasing a huge amount of carbon into the air, with nothing to balance the books. As Searchinger watched Bush’s call for an unprecedented increase in biofuel production, his hunch was that the biofuel balance sheet would turn out to be tragically shortsighted.
I have heard it said that much of Indonesia’s palm oil goes into consumer products, rather than fuel. However, this misses the point, as the article explains:
The law had a profound effect. Biodiesel production in the United States would jump from 250 million gallons in 2006 to more than 1.5 billion gallons in 2016. Imports of biodiesel to the United States surged from near zero to more than 100 million gallons a month. As fuel markets snatched up every ounce of domestic soy oil to meet the American fuel mandate, the food industry also replaced the soy it had used with something cheaper and just as good: palm oil, largely from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the sources of nearly 90 percent of the global supply. Lawmakers never anticipated that their well-intentioned plan — to help the climate by helping American farmers — might instead transform Indonesia and present one of the greatest threats to the planet’s tropical rain forests. But as Indonesian palm oil began to flood Western markets, that is exactly what began to happen.
The article goes on to expose the Obama’s EPA’s cover up of the problems:
4. ‘It Was Really Sort of Shocking’
Timothy Searchinger spent a year researching cropland demand, and in February 2008, just two months after Bush signed the biofuels mandate into law, he and eight co-authors published their findings in the journal Science. It was a rare coup for a layman — peer-reviewed scientific journals seldom take an interest in the work of activist lawyers — but Searchinger had done something important. He had tried to quantify how increasing the demand for biofuel would change land use. According to his calculations, the ripple effects from land use would be so great that ethanol wasn’t going to be better for the climate at all; instead, it would create nearly double the greenhouse-gas emissions of conventional fuels.
How was this possible? A typical life-cycle analysis adds up just the carbon emissions involved in the chain of fuel production and use: the carbon produced by burning the fuel, the carbon spit out by the tractor in the field, the carbon produced by the fertilizer manufacturer and so on. By this accounting, vegetable-oil-based biofuel fares well against petroleum fuels, reducing CO₂ emissions by as much as 80 percent.
What that analysis does not take into account, though, is that there is only so much land. The supposed carbon gains of plant-based fuels have to be offset, Searchinger argued in subsequent papers, by one of three things: reducing food consumption, increasing yields from existing cropland or — most likely — creating entirely new cropland, probably in the countries with the largest “underutilized” forests. And the typical analysis doesn’t count the carbon produced by cutting down these forests or — if that deforestation happens to take place in Indonesia — emissions from disturbing the extremely carbon-rich peatland soils that much of the forest grows upon.
Accounting for the “substitution effect,” which describes the way more or less interchangeable commodities like palm and soybean oil tend to be swapped out for one another as buyers seek the lowest price, has proved to be a particularly challenging problem. The American biofuels law, for instance, was designed to support soybean and corn farmers, not palm-oil producers. But the United States began increasing foreign palm-oil imports nonetheless — they more than doubled by 2017 — in large part because so much of the domestic soybean production that once went to food was now being used for fuel. Much of that palm oil went to food production. But the increased use of palm oil in food production was largely a byproduct of the increased fuel-oil production. (In Europe, which also passed a biofuels mandate in 2009 and uses large amounts of palm-based biodiesel directly in its vehicles, the calculation was simpler.)
Wrangling precisely how much palm demand resulted from using a gallon of soy for fuel, and how much rain-forest carbon, in Indonesia for example, might be emitted as a result, became a question that was increasingly influenced by political factors. The E.P.A., in 2009, made one of the most significant efforts to model and predict the carbon from biofuels, using three of the most established models and an overlay of satellite imagery of agricultural lands around the world, including those in Indonesia. The agency determined that the carbon footprint of land-use changes overshadowed any other consideration, and not by a small margin. In fact, when land changes were accounted for, the climate benefit of biofuels was entirely wiped away. Because a huge pulse of emissions comes from land change immediately after forests are cut, the E.P.A. concluded that it would take 32 years before biodiesel from soybean oil was truly net-zero for carbon on an annual basis, and a century for it to reach the level of benefit required under the law.
But that finding did not last long. The agriculture industry went to war to save the mandate they worked so hard to put in place. They lobbied the E.P.A. to abandon its consideration of indirect land-use change, describing it as a “radical” approach that could hold American farmers responsible for business decisions made by villagers halfway around the world. They supported research suggesting that the E.P.A. had overestimated the expansion of crops into tropical rain forests and said farmers were getting better crop yields off the same land than the models had acknowledged.
By the time the E.P.A. released its final rule in early 2010, it had made a complete about-face. Its models now found that the impact from land-use changes were almost negligible. For Indonesia, the E.P.A. estimated that just 110,000 acres of forest would be converted to cropland as a result of the American biofuels law, and almost none of it on sensitive peatland. It also extended the scope of its analysis to 2022, which had the effect of minimizing the short-term emissions. And it worked: Corn ethanol just barely cleared the law’s hurdle, and soybean biodiesel suddenly appeared to be vastly cleaner than regular diesel.
One particular factor, specific to Indonesia, is peat, which makes the whole problem of CO2 emissions much, much worse:
In most of the places the Walhi crew visited, the fires appeared to have been extinguished, but the earth remained hot, smouldering underground. And this — more than the landscape destruction itself — was what concerned the group most. The dried and decaying peatland soil in this part of Borneo would almost certainly continue to burn for many more months, even years, releasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that far exceeded those from the rain-forest deforestation itself.
Peatland is boggy, waterlogged ground, loaded with layers of decomposing plants that can’t get enough oxygen to support the microorganisms that would normally break them down. So they accumulate, layer by layer, season by season, compressing into a dense, black carbon-rich mud of partly decayed matter that sinks below the shallow water table and is preserved there in an anaerobic state. Left alone for a couple hundred million more years, the peat would solidify into coal.
Exposed peatland can spew carbon into the atmosphere for decades, even centuries, after the land is first disturbed. Indonesia’s peatland destruction — just the amount that has already occurred — is roughly the equivalent of opening 70 new, large coal-fired power plants. And if even a fraction of these emissions are counted as land-change effects in the process of evaluating biofuels, the scales are forcefully tipped. “It’s all a deception,” Suhadi said. “There is no sustainability.”
Globally, peatlands from Norway to Brazil hold a volume of carbon equivalent to 21 percent of the entire carbon content in the earth’s soil. Indonesia’s peatlands alone (which are greater in size than others anywhere in the world except for those in Russia and Canada) now emit more than 500 megatons of CO₂ each year, an amount greater than the entire annual emissions of the state of California. Peatland forests hold 12 times as much carbon as other tropical rain forests around the world. This makes destroying them one of the planet’s greatest threats — and protecting them one of the most accessible opportunities to curb rising global emissions.
It is easy to blame problems like this on multi-national companies, or an Act of Congress. In reality, the situation is much more complex.
However, I suspect generations to come will look back in horror about what the world is doing now, supposedly in the name of saving the planet.
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