Before I started doing environmental work, I’d assumed that biofuel use would have a positive effect on the climate. It turns out the truth about biofuels is much more complex than I’d originally thought. Not every biofuel on the market today has a positive impact on the environment, and some actually pose a major threat.
Fortunately the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took into consideration the complexity of the issue in its latest ruling about biofuels derived from palm oil. Late last week, the EPA excluded palm oil biodiesel from the U.S. renewable fuel standard—a small yet significant reprieve for Indonesia’s rainforests, where palm oil plantations are a major cause of rainforest destruction.
The EPA found that biofuels derived from palm oil aren’t a good choice for the climate because, once the carbon footprint of palm oil production is factored in, they can no longer meet the 20% emissions-reduction standard for biofuels.
It’s encouraging that the EPA sees the terrible toll the industrial production of palm oil biodiesel has on the environment. Indonesia is already the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S. Some 85% of Indonesia’s emissions result from clearing rainforests and draining carbon-rich peatlands, activities driven heavily by the rapid expansion of the palm oil industry.
Widely considered a “clean” agrofuel, palm oil has more environmental implications to consider than just the emissions it produces when burned. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, biodiesel from palm oil grown on peat has a 200 year carbon debt. This means it would take 200 years of production for these palm oil plantations to replace the carbon lost from land conversion. And once you consider the amount of fuel used for palm oil cultivation and transcontinental shipping, palm oil can be one of the worst fuel sources for the climate.
Looking at the harsh and immediate realities of today’s climate science, it’s clear that a 200-year turnaround is 200 years too late. There are already too many demands on Indonesia’s rainforests coming from the palm oil industry.