FAQ: Palm oil, forests and climate change

Last edited 8 November 2007 at 10:44am

Forested peatlands cleared for oil palm plantations in Riau, Indonesia

Forested peatlands cleared for oil palm plantations in Riau, Indonesia © Greenpeace/Oka Budhi

Why is palm oil a problem?

The global palm oil industry is expanding rapidly: it's used in an increasing number of food and cosmetic products, while demands for its use in biofuels like biodiesel are set to soar in the near future. Tropical rainforests and peatlands, in South East Asia are being destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations. Not only is this a disaster for biodiversity and local communities, it will also release vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

What does Greenpeace want?

We want to see the Indonesian government establish a moratorium on clearing forest and peatland areas and to help achieve that, we're asking supermarkets and food companies to cease trading with palm oil suppliers that are involved in this environmental destruction. We also want to see deforested and degraded peatlands being restored, preventing yet more emissions from these areas.

International funds also need to be made available so tropical forest countries can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. This should also be a core element of the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, but it needs to happen alongside massive cuts in emissions from richer nations as well.

Are you anti-palm oil?

We're not against palm oil or the palm oil industry. What we are against is any palm oil that comes from plantations converted from forest and peatland areas. However, at the moment it's impossible to determine where palm oil comes from, so companies should stop trading in palm oil from suppliers known to be involved in forest conversion. We also want to see them immediately support a moratorium on further forest and peatland destruction.

What's so important about peatland?

Peatland is one of the most concentrated stores of carbon around. Clearing the forest on top, draining the peat and burning it releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Indonesia's peatlands represent just 0.1 per cent of the Earth's land mass, but contribute a staggering 4 per cent of global emissions.

What is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil?

The RSPO was established in 2001 as a market-led initiative to reform the way palm oil is produced, processed and used, with clear standards on the production of sustainable palm oil. Members include companies all along the supply chain, from big name companies such as Unilever, Cadbury's, Nestle and Tesco, to suppliers such as Cargill, ADM and Indonesian-based Duta Palma.

Why won't the RSPO work?

As it currently stands, even though member companies are paying lip-service to forest and peatland protection, the reality is very different. The existing standards developed by the RSPO will not prevent forest and peatland destruction, and a number of RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices of the palm oil industry. Some like palm oil processor Duta Palma, an RSPO member, are directly involved in deforestation. Worse still, at present the RSPO itself is creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the industry.

Aren't biofuels meant to reduce emissions?

They could make a small contribution to reducing emissions, but their role has been greatly over-exaggerated. Using biofuels containing palm oil to tackle climate change is like using a can of petrol to put out a fire and would produce more carbon emissions than burning conventional fossil fuels.

So why are governments increasing the amount of biofuels being sold?

It's seen as an easy quick fix to cut emissions from transport, but as a result of deforestation and land conversion overall emissions could actually increase. In addition, the growth of crops for biofuels looks set to increase food prices and reduce global food reserves. This hasn't stopped several governments setting biofuel targets: by 2012, 20 per cent of diesel in India will be biodiesel, while by 2020 the EU and China want their biofuel levels to rise to 10 and 15 per cent respectively. We're lobbying governments to devise strict sustainability criteria to ensure they don't include products directly or indirectly responsible for deforestation.

Is this just a problem for Indonesia?

No, it's a global problem. The international trade in palm oil means companies in the UK can have a huge influence on how suppliers operate, and by refusing to deal with those they know to be destroying forest areas they can change industry practices. Governments also need to wake up to the relationship between deforestation and climate change, and provide funding to prevent deforestation, as forest destruction is responsible for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

How does this fit into the Kyoto Protocol?

The next phase of the Kyoto Protocol currently being negotiated, and reducing emissions from deforestation has to be a key part of any agreements. The solution we and many others propose is a funding mechanism to transfer money for forest protection from rich countries to poor ones, including Indonesia, and this needs to happen alongside deep cuts in emissions in the UK and other developed nations. At the talks in Bali in December 2007, we put forward just such a mechanism - the Tropical Deforestation Emissions Reduction Mechanism or TDERM.

What effect will a moratorium have on the livelihoods of Indonesians?

As in many other forest areas around the world, local communities often get a raw deal. Many are totally dependent on the forest for everything they need to survive and although in theory indigenous people have the right to control development on their customary lands, their rights are frequently violated by the government and companies. They are often cheated out of their land, and farmers who sell their forest areas can become trapped in a cycle of debt, effectively becoming slaves on their own land. It's also worth remembering that most players in the palm oil industry are major international companies, so the profits and associated benefits don't filter down to the majority of Indonesians.

People have been talking about palm oil for years, so why is Greenpeace campaigning about this now?

It's not a new issue, but the palm oil industry is expanding rapidly and the rush for biofuels will only increase demand. In Riau province, home to one-quarter of Indonesia's oil palm plantations, a further 3 million hectares are planned and soon half of the province will be covered in oil palms. If this expansion goes ahead it will release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

Is it possible to stop buying products containing palm oil, or buy only sustainable palm oil?
Because there's virtually no way of telling whether the palm oil in any particular product has been grown on deforested land, it's impossible to buy only sustainable palm oil. It's also difficult to avoid palm oil, as in the ingredients it's often listed as merely as 'vegetable oil'. 

What can I do?

In April 2008, we launched a campaign in several countries (including the UK) to push companies at various points along the palm oil supply chain into supporting measures to protect rainforests from further plantation expansion. We focused on Unilever, the biggest consumer of palm oil in the world, and just ten days after we began the campaign, the company agreed to back a moratorium on deforestation to grow palm oil and would help persuade other companies to follow suit. A huge part of this amazing success was down to emails and photos our supporters sent to senior Unilever executives.

At the moment, we're working with Unilever to build a coalition of companies to help force through the moratorium but it's probable we'll be asking for your help again in the near future. Subscribe to our ebulletin to receive campaign alerts or make a donation to help us continue our work in Indonesia and around the world.

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