It’s all about Palm Oil

Palm oil is a ubiquitous component in many of our manufactured foods. Produced from the fruit of the palm tree, Elaeis spp., and labeled under such names as cetyl alcohol, palmitic acid and vegetable oil, this edible oil is in everything from cereals to ice cream, candles to detergent, and in many cosmetic products such as shampoo and lipstick (Porteous & Mogg, 2006). Recently however, a significant proportion of palm oil is going to the energy sector, specifically for biodiesel. The reason this edible oil is used to produce fuel is that it has the highest yield per hectare/year over most other sources (Atabani et al., 2012. Table 4).

Oil Content by Feedstock

Important motives for using a potential food stock for fuel are that it is processed from a renewable resource; it is an affordable alternative to fossil fuels, and that makes it highly attractive in this age of climate change and energy security.  Likewise this results in a fuel that is potentially sustainable, nontoxic, and easily transportable, and which can be used in most diesel engines without expensive modification. This is a very strong incentive when considering that the transportation sector is the second largest consumer of energy in the world (Atabani et al., 2012). Also, depending how the numbers are calculated, biodiesel has net carbon-dioxide emissions 78% lower than conventional diesel, has no sulphur emissions, and produces relatively little particulate matter which in turn results in cleaner air. But it’s not all good news. Biodiesel contains less energy than conventional diesel which results in an increase in fuel consumption of anywhere from 2-10%. It also has high emissions of nitrogen oxide(s) which is an important greenhouse gas (Janaun and Ellis, 2010). Furthermore, since biodiesel uses a common food stock there is a very real concern that it is driving an increase in food prices globally. There are also important social issues associated with palm oil plantations. In Africa, South America, Indonesia, and Malaysia indigenous peoples are being driven from their lands and large swaths of carbon storing tropical jungles, with all of their abundant biodiversity, are being decimated (Van Der Horst & Vermeylen, 2011). Steps are being taken to control this environmental damage and to produce a more socially ethical palm oil industry. Among these are certification schemes to ensure that new plantations are sustainable and equitable. GreenPalm is one such certificate trading programme which is also endorsed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a non-profit, voluntary, and industry-led trade organization whose purpose it is to promote a sustainable palm industry in a transparent manner. The RSPO were themselves evaluated in 2009 to verify if they were meeting their claims and their mandate. Laurance et al., (2010) published a review of the organization and their conclusion were quite scathing. The RSPO was found to certify producers without monitoring, producers of palm oil were able to become members of the RSPO without prior certification, and several of the largest RSPO certified users such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever were found to be using oil derived from freshly deforested jungle. Palm oil use is increasing and environmental and social impact assessment and clear regulations are needed to ensure that the industry becomes sustainable.

Al Jazeera’s weekly Asian current affairs programme documentary on the palm oil industry:101 East: The price of palm oil

A.E. Atabani, A.S. Silitonga, Irfan Anjum Badruddin, T.M.I. Mahlia, H.H. Masjuki, S. Mekhilef. (2012). A comprehensive review on biodiesel as an alternative energy resource and its characteristics. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 16, Issue 4. Pages 2070-2093

Janaun J., Ellis N. (2010). Perspectives on biodiesel as a sustainable fuel. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 14 (4), pp. 1312-1320.

Laurance, W. F., Koh, L. P., Butler, R., Sodhi, N. S., Bradshaw, C. J. A., Neidel, J. D., Consunji, H. and Mateo Vega, J. (2010).  Improving the Performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for Nature Conservation. Conservation Biology, 24: 377–381. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01448.x

Porteous, J., & Mogg, R. (2006). The new oil barrens. ECOS, 2006(132), 21–23. doi:10.1071/EC132p21

Van Der Horst, D., & Vermeylen, S. (2011). Spatial scale and social impacts of biofuel production. Biomass and Bioenergy, 35(6), 2435-2443.


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