Thursday, 4 December 2008

Degraded grasslands better option for palm oil production relative to rainforests, finds study

Degraded grasslands better option for palm oil production relative to rainforests, finds study

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.comDecember 3, 2008

Producing biofuels from oil palm plantations established on degraded grasslands rather than tropical rainforests and peat lands would result in a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere rather than greenhouse gas emissions, report researchers writing in Conservation Biology.

The results confirm that benefits to climate from biofuel production depend greatly on the type of land used for feedstocks. "Our analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical forestlands," said lead author Finn Danielsen of Denmark's Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology (NORDECO).

"Until then, we will be releasing carbon into the atmosphere by cutting tropical rain forests, in addition to losing valuable plant and animal species. It's even worse on peatlands, which contain so much carbon that it would be 600 years before we see any benefits whatsoever."

Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.

The authors — which include botanists, ecologists and engineers from seven countries — found that biofuels produced from oil palm cultivated on degraded Imperata grasslands would lead to a net removal of carbon in 10 years. Imperata is a grass that takes hold after forests are burned and cleared.

It prevents natural regeneration of forest and once established, generally results in the abandonment of land. At least 8.5 million hectares of land in Indonesia are classified as Imperata grassland, according to a 1997 study published in Agroforestry Systems. Another 5 million hectares are degraded grasslands.

While these lands offer great potential to expand palm oil production without encroaching on carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems like tropical rainforests and peat swamps, developers have traditionally been hesitant to develop Imperata grasslands due to the lack of a "logging subsidy" generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm.

Thus forests across Malaysia and Indonesia continue to be cleared for oil palm plantations. While a recent collapse of palm oil prices may offer a temporary reprieve from the relentless expansion the region has experienced over the past generation, many observers expect palm oil demand to continue to grow for use in food, industrial applications, and biodiesel production, putting remaining forests at risk.

Oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market — far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops.

The authors note that the continuing destruction of forests and peatlands for oil palm will devastate Southeast Asia's biodiversity and result in massive greenhouse gas emissions, undermining a major incentive for biofuel production — emissions-savings relative to conventional fossil fuels.

"Biofuels are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace tropical rain forests," said co-author Dr. Neil Burgess of World Wildlife Fund. "In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of the world's most efficient carbon storage tools – intact tropical rain forests."

Three stages: (1) Healthy forest in Borneo; (2) recently cleared forest adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo); (3) scrubland adjacent to Tanjung Puting.

"It's a huge contradiction to clear tropical rain forests to grow crops for so-called 'environmentally friendly' fuels," said co-author Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Center, Malaysia. "This is not only an issue in South East Asia – in Latin America forests are being cleared for soy production which is even less efficient at biofuel production compared to oil palm. Reducing deforestation is a much more effective way for countries to reduce climate change while also meeting their obligations to protect biodiversity."

To discourage continued conversion of ecologically-important and carbon-dense ecosystems for oilseed production, the authors call for the establishment of global sustainability standards for biofuels, a measure which is already under consideration by the E.U. Such criteria — potentially applied to production or imports — could lead to the conservation of forests and peat lands for their carbon they store, the biodiversity they house, and the ecosystem services they provide, while promoting oil palm expansion on otherwise abandoned grasslands.

Countries like Indonesia could see a windfall from both increased palm oil production and compensation from emerging markets for forest carbon and ecosystem services. CITATION: Finn Danielsen et al. Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate.

Conservation Biology, 2008; DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01096.x
Abstract:The growing demand for biofuels is promoting the expansion of a number of agricultural commodities, including oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Oil-palm plantations cover over 13 million ha, primarily in Southeast Asia, where they have directly or indirectly replaced tropical rainforest.

We explored the impact of the spread of oil-palm plantations on greenhouse gas emission and biodiversity. We assessed changes in carbon stocks with changing land use and compared this with the amount of fossil-fuel carbon emission avoided through its replacement by biofuel carbon.

We estimated it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion, depending on how the forest was cleared. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years.

Conversely, planting oil palms on degraded grassland would lead to a net removal of carbon within 10 years. These estimates have associated uncertainty, but their magnitude and relative proportions seem credible.

We carried out a meta-analysis of published faunal studies that compared forest with oil palm. We found that plantations supported species-poor communities containing few forest species. Because no published data on flora were available, we present results from our sampling of plants in oil palm and forest plots in Indonesia.

Although the species richness of pteridophytes was higher in plantations, they held few forest species. Trees, lianas, epiphytic orchids, and indigenous palms were wholly absent from oil-palm plantations. The majority of individual plants and animals in oil-palm plantations belonged to a small number of generalist species of low conservation concern. As countries strive to meet obligations to reduce carbon emissions under one international agreement (Kyoto Protocol), they may not only fail to meet their obligations under another (Convention on Biological Diversity) but may actually hasten global climate change.

Reducing deforestation is likely to represent a more effective climate-change mitigation strategy than converting forest for biofuel production, and it may help nations meet their international commitments to reduce biodiversity loss.

Other sources used in the preparation of this post
Garrity D.P., Soekardi M., van Noordwijk M., De la Cruz R., Pathak P.S., Gunasena H.P.M., van So N., Juijun G. and Majid N.M. (1997) : The Imperata grasslands of tropical Asia: area distribution, and typology. Agroforestry Systems. Volume 36:3-29. Numbers 1-3 / December. Springer Netherlands.
Rötheli, E. (2007). An analysis of the economic implications of developing oil palm plantations on deforested land in Indonesia. WWF
Butler, R.A. (2008). Biodiversity of rainforests should not be compared with oil palm plantations says palm oil council chief., November 11, 2008
Butler, R.A. & Koh, L.P. (2008). In Press.