Palm oil is perhaps the most pervasive agricultural product in the world today. It cuts across industries – from food to transport, fashion, health, homecare and most everyday consumer products. It is an ingredient in many food items such as bread, ice cream and peanut butter. It is also used in the production of cosmetics, soap, candles, detergent, as well as several dietary supplements and medicines.
Palm oil is energy dense, meaning it produces far more oil per hectare than other energy crops. Also, since it is sourced largely from the Global South, palm oil is often cheaper than other vegetable oils, like rapeseed oil.
But is Palm Oil Clean?
In the 1990s palm oil was seen as a popular alternative to automobile fuel, and was thought to be cleaner than coal and petroleum. By 2018 Europe used 53 percent of all palm oil imports to make biodiesel for cars and trucks and 12 percent to generate electricity and heating.
Needless to say, palm oil is now a billion-dollar global business. For palm oil-producing nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, it is an economic game-changer as both countries presently supply 85 percent of the world’s palm oil needs.
But palm oil production is now recognized as a primary driver of deforestation and rainforest animal extinction. Starting 2020, the use of palm oil in EU biofuel will be capped as a plan to phase out the fuel by 2030 begins.
The detrimental environmental impact of palm oil production far outweighs the carbon dioxide it saves as a road biofuel. This impact is emphasized in the following facts:
To hit this mark, there is a need for major transformation both in industries and households. Calculating our carbon footprint is not only the responsibility of the industries or the government. It is a responsibility of every human being as well. Individual action to reduce our collective carbon footprint includes responsible travelling, turning to ecotourism, and building relationships with sustainable travel companies.
Palm oil plantations cover about 27 million hectares of land on Earth. With this, it threatens the sustainability of biodiversity, like orangutans or rhinos in Southeast Asia.
The palm oil industry is the leading cause responsible for deforestation and destruction of rainforests, swamps, and peatland drainage.
In the next 10 years, Malaysia and Indonesia are planning to expand the palm plantations to cover 26 million hectares, resulting in a 98 percent loss of natural forests in both countries.
Tropical deforestation accounts for 12 percent of carbon emissions, with some claiming the number is even higher. It’s a sad irony that early attempts of biofuel to move away from greenhouse gases are equally carbon poor.
If Europe and the United States continue their current thirst for palm oil biodiesel, about 4 billion hectares of land on Earth will have to be converted to palm oil plantation. This will lead to the deforestation of the remaining tropical forests of Borneo, Sumatra, and peninsular Malaysia.
Deforestation for palm oil industry is also responsible for the annual haze that envelops much of Southeast Asia and threatens the health and livelihood of millions of people. Air pollution cross hundreds of miles beyond the islands of Indonesia and wreak havoc in Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.
The year 2015 saw the worst haze crisis in the region. Industrial slash-and-burn was spurred by El Niño in Sumatra and Kalimantan that triggered wildfires which burned for weeks, releasing an unprecedented amount of greenhouse gas emission into the atmosphere, and led to 19 deaths. Some days in October and September of that year Indonesia released more greenhouse gases than the entire US economy.
The annual haze in Southeast Asia has reached a level of environmental pollution that threatens the health and livelihood of millions of urban dwellers and can possibly reach the other Asian countries.
Earlier this year, California proposed a cap-and-trade program response to Brazil’s forest fires. The state would enable companies to offset their carbon emissions to fund prevention of rainforest deforestation. Some say offsetting creates a dangerous precedent because it would allow deforestation to carry on, while others argue the fund would only promote sustainable industries. One thing is clear: something needs to be done.
Taking a Stand against Palm Oil
Because it is big business, the palm oil industry is staunchly defending itself against environmentalists. But we must look after nature’s sustainability, and taking a stand on this well-known issue is one way to save the planet one action at a time.
How do we stop the palm oil industry from destroying the environment? We can start in our own homes and cars. Here’s how:
1. Engage and promote anti-palm oil activism. Like the successful, “No Rainforests in My Tank!” campaign in Europe.
2. Choose alternative eco-friendly fuels other than palm oil-based fuels. Better yet, choose energy alternatives such as renewables. Or leave your car at home and bike or walk to work instead.
3. Make it a habit to watch your consumption and ecological footprint. You can check which products contain palm oil here.
4. Check which products are produced sustainably and which have palm oil that’s been certified. See what businesses buy only sustainable palm oil here.
5. Push for carbon neutrality, and for your government to make targets aimed for under the Paris Agreement.
6. Be vocal about the perils of palm oil and let your family and friends know its bad effects to the environment and health.
Shunning palm oil altogether as it is used more widely in the world than ever before, it is possible to reduce the demand for palm oil through individual action. If they lose the market (which is us), that’s a sure fire way to stop them altogether.
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