Palm Oil Unleashed a Catastrophe

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.


Within months of Bush’s speech, the House and the Senate were reconciling a draft of a sprawling omnibus bill that would eventually be called the Energy Independence and Security Act, or EISA. In addition to requiring carmakers to improve fuel standards, a longtime priority for Democrats, the bill updated and expanded renewable-fuel standards, requiring fuel producers to mix in soy, palm and other kinds of vegetable oil with diesel fuel and to use ethanol from corn and sugar in gasoline. The bill also set tough standards for how much cleaner, in terms of carbon, each of those categories of fuel had to become — 50 percent for diesel, 20 percent for gas — and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to judge what qualified.

The expected gains were enormous. The switch to biofuels, the E.P.A. would later calculate, promised to stop the release of 4.5 billion tons of carbon over three decades, the equivalent of parking every single American automobile for more than seven years. Before the bill passed in December 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “the shot heard round the world for energy independence.”

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.

Commitments to reduce or eliminate deforestation from sourcing key commodities (like soy, timber, or palm oil) are trying to protect at-risk forests. Since both forest carbon project developers and national REDD+ programs have been active in this space, this means that there is clear potential to overlap work and/or funding across REDD+ projects/programs and incorporate sustainable supply chain activities.


Follow our social media to learn more about our efforts to save the world!

Website
Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Youtube
LinkedIn
Telegram

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade