Proposals by RWE npower to run the Littlebrook power station in Kent on palm oil have been criticised by environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth. The group warned that use of palm oil as a biofuel could worsen climate change, because it would lead to a major increase in demand for palm oil leading to even more rainforest destruction.
Palm oil is grown in lowland rainforest areas in South East Asia and growing demand is already leading to the destruction of rainforest, including through burning. This increases emissions of carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere. Forest clearance also leads to the exposure and burning of lowland peat bogs, again emitting greenhouse gases. Tropical deforestation already contributes between 10 and 30 per cent of global warming emissions (1).
Palm oil, which is currently used as an ingredient in food and cosmetics, is one of the cheapest vegetable oils on the world market. As such, it is seen as an attractive option by energy companies. The destruction of lowland rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia also threatens the survival of the orang-utan, one of man’s closest relatives, and has resulted in accusations of human rights abuses from local communities, many of whom depend on the forests for their livelihoods.
Friends of the Earth’s Palm Oil Campaigner Ed Matthew said: “Current levels of demand for palm oil for the food industry are already threatening the forests of Indonesia with annihilation. It is a big enough challenge converting this into demand for sustainably grown palm oil. These forests and the people and wildlife they support simply cannot cope with a steep rise in global demand for palm oil for the energy industry. It will sound the death knell for the orang-utan and create further conflict between palm oil companies and local communities. But it will also hamper the fight against climate change, the very problem the biofuels industry is supposed to be helping overcome.”
More than 90 per cent of world exports of palm oil come from Malaysia and Indonesia and up to 10 million hectares of rainforest have already been destroyed as a result of the palm oil industry and pressure is growing to increase the area of forest available for plantations, with proposals to expand into the Tanjung Putting National Park – one of the world’s most important sites for orang-utan conservation.
Friends of the Earth said that many palm oil companies in Indonesia have used fire to clear the land, exacerbating the problem. Burning forests adds to emissions of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that the great forest fires in Indonesia of 1997-1998 resulted in carbon emissions equivalent to 40 per cent of all emissions from burning fossil fuels in the world that year. Many oil palm plantations in Indonesia are also being developed in areas of peat swamp – which if degraded can also result in the release of huge amounts of global warming gases.
Palm oil should not be used as a fuel source until governments in Malaysia and Indonesia can demonstrate that rainforest is not being cleared to make way for the plantations and that the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are fully recognised in law, Friends of the Earth said.
(1) Schimel, D.S. et al. 2001. Recent patterns and mechanisms of carbon exchange by terrestrial ecosystems. Nature 414: 169-172.