The Environmental Footprint Of Palm Oil

The recent haze crisis saw a greater level scrutiny on oil palm plantations in the region. There was, however, a difference between this year’s event and occurrences in 2015 and earlier: the public in the region generally understood that oil palm was not the root cause of the problem, and that it is much more complex than blaming one commodity for a complex environmental problem.

Sadly, oil palm still remains the number-one scapegoat for Europeans when it comes to global environmental problems.

It’s therefore worth revisiting the facts about the impact of oil palm, particularly in relation to other commodities. In this post we’ll look at the various footprints of palm oil, covering deforestation, inputs and yields, biodiversity and peatlands. But we’ll also look at how and why European institutions target Asia’s agricultural sector, while turning a blind eye to their own environmentally destructive agricultural footprint.

Deforestation from oil palm is significantly lower than other commodities

The deforestation footprint of oil palm is a major source of contention. It is always highlighted as a key source of deforestation globally and in Southeast Asia. This reached a fever pitch when EU parliamentarian Katerina Konecna erroneously stated that oil palm is responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s deforestation – a spectacularly inaccurate statement. This was substantially rebutted by the European Commission’s own research on global deforestation, which stated that between 1990 and 2008, oil palm was only responsible for around 2% of global deforestation, compared with twice that for soy, and ten times that for livestock

So let’s take a look at the latest research.

Getting a standardised comparison of commodities and countries and their contribution to deforestation is difficult. However, this study from a group of Scandinavian researchers does exactly that, using average attribution of deforestation between 2010 and 2014 for different land uses:

 CroplandPastureForest plantationsOther
Forest loss:(Mha)(Mha)(Mha)(Mha)
Row Asia and Pacific0.
Row America0.370.270.070.72
Row Africa0.

The clearest message here is that Brazilian deforestation for commodities is double that of Indonesia’s. But also that deforestation in Central and South America is double that of that in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the more crop-specific level, there’s a similar story. The researchers’ raw figures for deforestation attributed to different crops for 2014 tell an equally compelling story.

Row Asia
and Pacific
Row Africa7,57212,532177,96518,96611,75135735225,800212,60098,889

The standout is that global deforestation for cattle is more than double that of oilseeds. In addition, it’s clear that more deforestation in Indonesia can be attributed more to forestry and logging than oil palm. Finally, if we use deforestation attributed Indonesian oilseeds plus Malaysia’s oilseed figures (35,991 ha) as a proxy for oil palm, this is significantly smaller than deforestation for oilseeds in all of Latin America, which can largely be attributed to soybean.

The figures used in this study are broadly consistent with those from earlier historical studies that attributed a much larger footprint to soy and beef than to oil palm.

Deforestation emissions in Malaysia and Indonesia are lower than many other countries

Deforestation emissions in the Asia-Pacific are also worth looking at in comparison with the rest of the world. Again, finding recent data is not always straightforward, but this recent joint study by CIFOR and Dutch scholars has some good comparisons. At the country level, the largest emitter is Brazil, by a long way.

Emissions from agriculture driven Deforestation (ADD) (Mt CO2 yr-1)

Deforestation area (A) (km2 yr-1)

Years /1990-2000-2005-2010-1990-2000-2005-2010-
Oil palm has a lower environmental footprint

The clear lesson to be drawn from the research is that beef and soybean are generally the largest culprits when it comes to deforestation footprints. But the more important question is yield.

It is generally recognised that oil palm produces around 3.5 tonnes of oil per hectare (and this has the potential to increase exponentially in the coming years), compared with less than 0.5 for soybean, and 0.75 and 0.65 for rapeseed and sunflower respectively.

Globally, oil palm has a small footprint, but produces most of the world’s edible oil, as USDA figures demonstrate for 2018:

OilProduction Area (Mha)Production (MMt)

In short: palm oil produces half the world’s edible oil on around one-twentieth of the land.

As a consequence, the inputs required for palm oil are much lower. Palm requires on average 55 kg of fertiliser per tonne of oil; rapeseed requires 508; sunflower 468; soybean 272.

Similarly, pesticide inputs are minimal for palm at 0.01kg/tonne, compared with 35, 37 and 21 for rapeseed, sunflower and soybean respectively.

A full life-cycle analysis of palm oil shows that energy inputs required for palm are less than half those required for rapeseed, soybean and sunflower.

Biodiversity and peatland loss are not without European precedent

Oil palm is arguably the perfect crop. The two issues most often pointed out surround peatland emissions and biodiversity.

Peatland emissions are significant in that the clearing and drying of peatland forests produces relatively high levels of greenhouse gases.

But there are a number of myths surrounding peatland emissions. The first is that peatland emissions are exclusively from the tropics. Totally false.

Russia has the largest peat stocks in the world, followed by Canada and Indonesia. Countries in Europe such as Finland, Sweden and Norway have larger peat stocks than Malaysia, as do many other countries around the world, including the US, China, Sudan, Brazil and Peru.

The EU has relatively high levels of emissions from degraded peat. The most comprehensive study considers the European Union to be the second-highest source of peatland degradation emissions. The study confirms the “EU as a source of carbon dioxide emissions from peatlands drainage that is largely due to agriculture and forestry”. This is higher, for example, than Malaysia. The largest emissions come from Finland (50 million tons), Germany (32 million tons) and Poland (24 million tons).

In addition, Europe has had a historical dependence on peat drainage for development, particularly in countries like the Netherlands. One study estimates that historic Dutch peat drainage is responsible for around 3.07Gt of carbon emissions. That is quite ironic when you consider the outsized role the Dutch government and civil society plays in both criticising and urging reforms of the palm oil industry.

In Germany around “7.3 per cent of agricultural land is peatland – but this is responsible formore than 30 per cent of agriculture emissions in Germany”. EU-wide, it is estimated that peat is responsible for 80 per cent of the EU’s agricultural emissions.

It is also the case that peatlands are being used in Germany to grow maize, which is then used as a feedstock for biogas.

So, although Indonesia’s peatland emissions may be relatively high, they are not without precedent in terms of agricultural development.

Moreover, Malaysia and Indonesia have a number of peatland management and protection policies in place. Indonesia has a dedicated agency for peatland management, Malaysia has had a national action plan since 2011. Indonesia has established its peatland moratorium.

Both are part of the ASEAN-wide Peatland Management Strategy, and both are supported by private sector initiatives preventing new plantings on peatland.

Similarly, the question of biodiversity and palm plantations is often raised, and again, there is no question that conversion of primary forests to cropland – whether for wheat, pasture or oil palm – reduces levels of biodiversity.

But, again, this is not without historical precedent. One of the key differences between widespread historical deforestation in the EU and in North America over the past 1,000 years – which drove a number of European megafauna to extinction – is that developing countries are now in a position to attempt to maintain some levels of biodiversity via conservation areas and programs.

The EU’s approach to ASEAN commodities

It is worth remembering that around 35% of Europe has forest cover. Indonesia has around 50%, and Malaysia around 66%. ASEAN has a forest cover of around 46%, and the bloc supports around 650 million people. The EU supports just over 510 million people. The difference is the equivalent to the populations of France and Italy.

In other words, ASEAN is supporting 140 million more people on roughly the same land area as the EU, and has a greater forest area. So, in terms of sustainability, which bloc is doing better? You’d never know this given the considerable European media and government- funded civil society machines that relentlessly attacks palm oil.

The labelling of the EU’s approach to ASEAN’s commodities as a ‘trade war’ is not overblown. The bloc has gone to great lengths to prevent the importation of timber and paper products from Malaysia and Indonesia, fisheries products from Vietnam and Thailand, and now palm oil is in the EU crosshairs as well. It is even going so far as to hinder the importation of rice from Cambodia and Myanmar – two of the poorest countries in the region.

The most glaring inconsistency has been in the implementation of the Renewable Energy Directive, which has effectively implemented a trade ban on palm oil. Contrast this with the EU’s willingness to accept soybean for renewable energy, despite its larger deforestation footprint, just to placate the United States.

European policymakers pretend this hypocrisy doesn’t exist. But from the Asian perspective, we see what we see: Western leaders, who drew up the rules the world’s global trading system, now colluding and gaming the system to exclude Asian exporters.