Tuesday, 8 December 2009

‘Unfair decisions’

Tuesday December 8, 2009 The Star Malaysia

PALM oil producers in Indonesia and Malaysia, currently the first and second largest producers respectively, have often argued that prevailing scientific data of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from peatland have been collected from the temperate region.

They said until further scientific evidence was produced, it was unfair to conclude that their operations in tropical peatland was equally or more polluting.

The growers also quoted a study in Sarawak which showed that natural peat forest releases more carbon through root respiration and oxidation, compared with emissions from oil palm and sago plantations developed on peat soil.

Marcel Silvius, a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) GHG-Working Group that helped draft the criteria which was opposed by growers from the two countries, dispelled these assertions.

“(Claims of) uncertainty of data is untrue. It has been proven by several studies now that peat soil in the tropics emits around 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare compared with 30 tonnes in temperate Europe,” he said.

The findings of this scientist from Wetlands International had, in 2007, compelled the United Nations’ scientific advisory panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to acknowledge the adverse contribution of degraded peatlands to global warming.

Silvius said the industry has misrepresented the Sarawak findings as that of the “carbon balance” (absorption minus emission) from the three land use systems when it only measured emissions and not the carbon uptake through photosynthesis by living organisms in a peat ecosystem.

“In a peat swamp forest, peat accumulates over time and stores tonnes of carbon whereas in an oil palm plantation the peat layer will degrade, leading to oxidation that could amount to between 35 and 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide per ha per year. It is therefore clear that a natural peat swamp forest is the world’s top ecosystem in terms of carbon storage, whereas oil palm development on peat is among the world’s top climate change drivers,” he said.

In a new report The Global Peatland CO2 Picture (www.wetlands.org/peatco2picture), Silvius and other collaborating scientists warned that emissions from peat in South-East Asia is now 2.5 times more than in 1990, caused by deeply drained oil palm and pulp plantations.

Palm oil is potentially the most viable biofuel feedstock given its high yield and long production period but growing oil palm on carbon-rich peat soil will cancel out the carbon savings that biofuel is supposed to deliver. That is why the European Union (EU), which aims for a 10% biofuel content in transport fuel by 2020, now requires these fuels to have a GHG emission saving of 35%. Under its Renewable Energy Directive, EU governments are withdrawing subsidies and tax breaks for biofuel feedstocks that cannot meet the target. Currently, carbon savings of palm oil is estimated to be less than 20% .

Despite numerous trade delegations to Europe, the Malaysian Government has failed to convince the EU to revert its decision which will come into effect next year.

The industry’s attempts to counter criticisms by environmentalists that palm oil is no greener than fossil fuel have met several setbacks. Two Malaysian Palm Oil Council advertisements highlighting the sustainability of palm oil have been ruled by the British Advertising Standards Authority as misleading.

Said orang utan activist Sean Whyte of Nature Alert: “Whatever the industry has or has not done in the past is history. They should accept mistakes have been made, move forward and focus on how they can grow their industry without further catastrophic damage to the environment instead of spending their time and money on trying to talk their way out of what has become a public relations disaster.”