Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare (The New York Times)
Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of “sustainable energy,” achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.
Spurred by government subsidies, energy companies became so enthusiastic that they designed generators that ran exclusively on the oil, which in theory would be cleaner than fossil fuels like coal because it is derived from plants.
But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare.
Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there.
Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.
I’m shocked and amazed that a government program meddling in the market at the behest of special interests has backfired. It seems I’m not the only one.
“It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially went into palm oil,” said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.
Stupid is as stupid does, I guess.
And, with friends like these . . .
Friends of the Earth estimates that 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia from 1985 to 2000 was caused by new palm oil plantations.
It only gets better.
To makes matters worse, once dried, peatland is often burned to clear ground for plantations. The Dutch study estimated that the draining of peatland in Indonesia releases 660 million ton of carbon a year into the atmosphere and that fires contributed 1.5 billion tons annually.
The total is equivalent to 8 percent of all global emissions caused annually by burning fossil fuels, the researchers said.
But, this is the most depressing part of it all.
The government, environmental groups and some of the Netherlands’ “green energy” companies are trying to develop programs to trace the origins of imported palm oil, to certify which operations produce the oil in a responsible manner.
It’s like these people just can’t learn.