The high price of planting palm oil forests

New data shows that massive amounts of carbon dioxide are being released from tropical Southeast Asian peatland after the conversion of natural swamp forest to oil palm or pulpwood tree plantations. The findings are in accordance with other recent reports on the growing negative environmental impacts of planting palm oil and pulpwood forests.
Natural peatland accumulates huge stores of carbon dioxide as a result of centuries of tree growth. When this land is deforested to grow oil palms and pulpwood, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere thereby contributing to climate change. Even worse, when peatland is deforested and then left bare and unmanaged, the denuded land is susceptible to both fire and flooding. Tropical peatlands are not only rich repositories of vegetation and an important part of the global carbon cycle, they are also extremely important for biodiversity as they contain many rare species of animals and fish including orang utans, Sumatran tigers and blackwater fish.

Peat swamp forest is the only land in Southeast Asia that is not yet fully developed but the increasing demand for pulp and palm oil for biofuels is accelerating their conversion into plantations. Oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia now cover 420 000 ha and 2 800 000 ha respectively. Ironically, many experts believe that the oil palm plantations will release up to 30 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels that they are supposed to replace. It has been estimated that producing 1 tonne of palm oil will cause carbon dioxide emissions of between 15 and 70 tonnes over each 25-year planting lifecycle due to forest clearance, fires drainage and peat decomposition.

Climate change has been focused up to now on greenhouse gases emitted by large industrial plants, but attention is now starting to be focused on carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. Dr Susan Page from the University of Leicester in the UK is working on two EU-funded projects: CARBOPEAT and RESTORPEAT. Both have been designed to raise awareness of climate change. She says: 'Current land use and land practice developments in Southeast Asia give grave cause for concern. Deforestation of peatlands has been rising for the last 20 years. In 2005, 25 percent of all deforestation in Southeast Asia was on peatlands owing to demand for land on which to establish plantations.'

The CARBOPEAT and RESTORPEAT projects involve partners from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Holland, Finland and the UK. The partners are conducting research in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia on how tropical peat swamp forest could be used more productively to create sustainable and environmentally friendly livelihoods for local communities.

A United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference on climate change was held on 4-14 December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia, to allow delegates to discuss proposals to regulate international requirements for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

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