Palm oil production on peat
The demand for vegetable oil derived from oil palm is rapidly expanding. Approximately 90% of world production takes place in Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, around 20% of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia are on peat soils, which until recently were covered by peat swamp forests. The drainage of these carbon-rich organic soils for plantations is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions.
See our factsheet with information and sources on palm oil production and its impact on peat soils and emissions.
From rainforest to plantation
Peatlands are wetland areas where peat soils (acidic, organic soils from 50 centimetres to several metres thick) have developed. Large parts of the Southeast Asian rainforests are peatlands. Peatlands are not very suitable for oil palm production; soil fertility is poor and far too wet for these trees.
Peat swamps – both forests and logged areas – are the last remaining sparsely populated areas in Indonesia and Malaysia. For this reason, it is easy to establish large plantations. Of all new plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, an estimated 33% are in peat swamps (source: EU-JRC 2010, Indirect Land Use Change due to increased biofuel demand). An alarming example is the rapid loss of Sarawak (Malaysia) peat swamp forests for palm oil (see report).
Logging of the peat swamp forests and large-scale deep drainage makes these areas suitable for oil palm plantations. The result is a rapid loss of biodiversity; unique species such as the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii), Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Less well known are the enormous carbon dioxide emissions caused by peatland loss.
From plantation to greenhouse gas emissions
Peat soils need to be drained to a depth of at least 40 centimetres before oil palm can be grown. But in practice they are often drained to over one metre deep. Draining peat triggers oxidation of the organic, carbon-dense soil. Under tropical conditions, this leads to yearly emissions of 86 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare (see the published article about this).
Given that Indonesia has over 1.5 million hectares of palm oil plantations on peat, drainage for palm oil is likely to cause emissions of up to 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. With harvests of 2-6 tonnes of palm oil per hectare, palm oil is causing carbon dioxide emissions 10 times the magnitude of fossil fuels.
From plantation to wasteland
Plantations established on drained peatland often turn into wastelands. In coastal areas, when the peat soils have 'evaporated' and subsided, further drainage becomes impossible and saltwater intrudes into the now low-lying areas.
The demand for palm oil is expected to double in the next two decades. The ambition to use palm oil as a biofuel adds to the existing demand as a food oil. As a result, large new plantations are being planned, often targeting the last remaining ‘empty’ areas: the peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia.
What we achieved
For more information, see Greening the Economy