Climate change driven by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has devastating environmental, economic and social consequences. The emissions resulting from land clearance by burning are a major cause of air pollution, leading to a range of serious health conditions such as asthma and lung cancer. In 2012, the World Health Organisation reported that 3.7 million people die annually as a result of outdoor air pollution.

It is estimated that there were over 120,000 active fire alerts in Indonesia in 2015, compared to 80,000 in 2014. These have resulted in emissions in the region of 1.5 billion tonnes, almost three times the annual emissions of the entire UK economy in 2014. Air pollution costs advanced economies in the region of US$3.5 trillion per year.

Camera trap images of a forest fire in Berbak National Park, Indonesia

Camera trap images of a forest fire in Berbak National Park, Indonesia


Palm oil and emissions

No deforestation / zero burning / zero planting on peat

  • 8% of annual global carbon emissions can be attributed to tropical deforestation (and an even higher percentage when the degradation of tropical forests and peatland conversion are considered).
  • The clearing and burning of forests and the draining and burning of carbon-rich peatlands to make land available for monoculture oil palm plantations is a significant source of emissions.
  • Oil palm plantations hold on average 30 to 40 tonnes of above ground carbon per hectare; less than 20% of the above ground carbon held in primary forests.
  • As peatlands are drained of water, peat layers become exposed and the peat is oxidised, leading to substantial carbon emissions.
  • Furthermore, deforestation and the draining of peat make land more susceptible to fire. This, in tandem with the practice of using fire to clear land, greatly increases emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
  • Uncontrolled burning for plantation expansion can have widespread health and socio-economic impacts. There has been an unprecedented number of fires in Indonesia in 2015, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting haze has had dramatic effects on local populations and even reaches as far as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
  • At times during the haze crisis, pollution levels in areas where fires were burning were recorded at over 2000 on the Pollutant Standards Index – far above the 300 which is considered ‘hazardous’. There were over 500,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses and 19 people died in Indonesia alone. Some estimates have put the economic damage resulting from the haze at over $14 billion.
  • Growers can ensure their operations do not drive emissions from land use change by developing and implementing policies to address deforestation, as well as for zero burning, zero planting on peat, and by ensuring plantation expansion takes place on degraded land and not areas classified as high carbon stock (HCS). Read more about deforestation and palm oil
Forest Fire Aftermath, Indonesia (©ZSL)

The aftermath of a forest fire in Sumatra, Indonesia ©ZSL

Useful resources

References


Palm Oil Mill Effluent

  • The most environmentally damaging by-product of the milling process is palm oil mill effluent (POME), which is a hot, acidic effluent that contains oil, plant debris, and nutrients.
  • Large palm oil mills typically produce an average of 0.65 tonnes of raw POME for every tonne of fresh fruit bunches processed.
  • The majority of mills use open air ponding systems to store POME, which as well as being a major source of water pollution results in substantial GHG emissions, particularly of methane (read more about POME and pollution).
  • At 27 times more potent as a GHG than carbon dioxide, methane is a major contributor to global climate change.
  • The installation of methane capture facilities at all mills, such as demonstrated by Musim Mas, can significantly reduce methane emissions. This involves sealing POME treatment ponds with High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) to capture methane, which can be used subsequently as an alternative fuel to diesel (read more about Musim Mas and methane capture).
  • In addition to saving on electricity, methane capture can enable mills to generate revenue from verified GHG reductions, for example, via the Clean Development Mechanism.

Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME), East New Britain, Papua New Guinea © Wakx

Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME), East New Britain, Papua New Guinea © Wakx


Other factors

  • Further sources of GHG emissions include transportation, for example, of fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) and staff, as well as energy usage, such as from diesel generators used to power mills.
  • Companies can calculate and manage their GHG emissions using tools such as the RSPO’s PalmGHG calculator, which enables producers to estimate their net emissions from their palm oil products up to the mill gate, and the BioGrace Tool.

Useful resources