Palm oil, which is already used widely in food and cosmetics production, is touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuel. But environmental groups fear increased demand will encourage more illegal logging in southeast Asia to make space for new plantations. Many have also questioned whether the claimed carbon benefits are genuine (ENDS Report 386, p 15 ).
To assess these concerns, WWF commissioned Germany’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy to assess the carbon impacts across the supply chain. Its study claims to be the first to provide an "eco-balance" calculation of palm oil cultivation.1The researchers examined the impact of changing land use and different cultivation practices along with the impacts of processing, transportation and final use in cars or power stations. The results were compared with conventional diesel’s energy burden.
They concluded that "sustainable long-term management of palm oil plantations is doubtless possible". Compared with production of other biofuels, the energy balance of palm oil cultivation "can be positive", with little difference between its use in vehicles or power stations.
When the use of by-products such as glycerine, which is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, is taken into account, significantly more "energy credits" are generated than the energy expended to produce the biodiesel.
However, only the cultivation of palms on existing tropical fallow land can be considered environmentally friendly. If palms are grown on areas of cleared natural forest or converted rubber plantations, their environmental benefits "worsen noticeably". The energy needed to make synthetic substitutes for rubber is significantly higher than for the natural product.
"Considerable" savings in energy (15%) and greenhouse gas emissions (60%) could be achieved if the industry adopts best practice in production and processing. The greatest savings come from optimising plantation management, using all by-product fibres and kernel shells, and using biogas produced from palm oil mill effluent.
"It is imperative that the use of fallow lands for oil palm cultivation is prioritised before more rainforests are destroyed," said Markus Radday, WWF Germany’s tropical forest officer.
Initial estimates indicate Indonesia has about 20 million hectares of fallow land with the potential to meet most of the expected demand over the next few years.
But the report warns that the cost of establishing plantations on such land is several times higher than for cleared forest land and, without incentives, clearing is likely to continue.
Although the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been working with the supply chain and campaigners to define sustainable palm oil production and develop a worldwide certification scheme (ENDS Report 376, p 22 ), WWF says incorporating the findings into the roundtable’s sustainability criteria is not enough.
"All those interested in the long-term and sustainable use of this raw material must urgently create the necessary European legal framework," said Imke Lubbeke, WWF bioenergy officer. "Voluntary agreements alone are not enough. We need binding sustainability criteria for the use of palm oil as a biofuel, which would also ensure a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions."
The plea comes as authorities in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and at an EU level, develop standards for the use of biofuels.