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Palm Oil and its Biofuel Sustainability

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Protecting the environment must be our priority if we want our descendants to keep living comfortably on this planet. Greta Thunberg's recent reminder to stop subsidizing fossil fuel makes me realize we need to start thinking of other alternatives. Thankfully, many countries are working together to shift towards sustainable energy. One of those ways is to use palm oil for biofuel.

Palm oil single-handedly carried countries like Indonesia and Malaysia in slowly shifting away from using unsustainable fossil fuels. As the largest palm oil producer, Indonesia and Malaysia successfully take 85% of the world’s biodiesel production while supplying their own national needs. The claimed sustainable oil is everywhere, from food, cosmetics to biofuel.

Up to 2014, Europe was the biggest palm oil consumer. Interestingly, now Europe had been particularly vocal in its protest of the palm oil production process. They reasoned that the industry does more harm to surrounding lands and ecosystems than good. Where did this love story go wrong?

Palm Oil as Biofuel

The reasons why countries want to develop the use of biofuel vary. While developing countries want to reduce their reliance on oil imports, others wish to have a clean energy supply. However, all countries agreed that the main reason lies in reducing CO2 production.

Palm oil sounds like an enticing alternative for the following reason:

1. Fuelling our cars with oxygen-producing plants

2. Palms are perennial plants

3. They can grow in many places, such as South America, Asia, and Africa.

Industries extract palm oil for biodiesel from the fruit of a palm variant called Elaeis Guineensis. Plant-based biodiesel is arguably a renewable alternative compared to fossil-based ones. Biofuel production is a perfect opportunity for agrarian, developing countries to shift to cleaner energy. It benefits their economy by reducing crude oil imports and allowing them to allocate extra expenditures elsewhere. At the same time, they gain more income from exporting their palm oils abroad. One example, palm oil made up 11% of Indonesia’s national income after oil and gas in 2012.

Coincidentally, it aligns with the COP 21 agreement signed in Paris about replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, an easy feat for palm oil-producing countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Plus, the countries mentioned above have a ton of green areas they can utilize for farming.

What Gives?

It lies in the greenhouse gas produced when producing plant-based biofuel. The process itself exudes three prominent greenhouse gasses (GHG) like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. These gasses show up at various stages of production: from fertilization, cultivation, oil-processing in the plant, and transportation. The elaborate chemical processing of turning palm oil into biofuel emits three times GHGs than good old fossil fuel.

Remember when I say Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have abundant green spaces?

That was true until the world found out companies that produce palm oils slash and burn rainforests to create space for their plantations. Unfortunately, many companies opt for the non-eco-friendly method because it is much cheaper compared to other alternatives.

Now, you can probably imagine some of the downfalls of this method. First, soils erode from clearing the plantation through burning the forest, which is typically triggered when the plantation plants trees right on steep slopes. Like domino effects, it then leads to soil degradation, a condition where a flood thrives due to the soil's inability to keep water underground. Let's not forget the fire from the burning process emits CO2 while destroying the ecosystems.

Second, inadequate waste management systems cause water and soil pollution. According to the World Wildlife Organization, 2.5 metric tons of fertilizer waste that go down the river stream becomes groundwater and soil pollutant, especially downstream. Hence, the effluent endangers the surrounding biodiversity and humans by exposing them to a risk of poisoning. Waste management is often a chronic issue that gets carried to the company culture. Hence it is important to fix our waste habits early. We can start by building a good habit by reducing our food waste.

After many organizations demand Indonesia take action, the country has tried to find a midway between lessening the environmental damage while protecting their business interest to stay profitable. Mandatory policy to protect the primary forests from Indonesian palm oil operations is now in effect, which is a step forward in the right direction. However, it is not enough to stop wildlife from suffering from human greed. Companies continue burning the forest by abusing any loopholes they found, which causes animals to continue losing their lives and habitats.

Final Verdict

Palm oil sounds like a promising option the world could use to make vehicles around the world more eco-friendly. However, the cost to the environment outweighs its potential. Of course, we all hope there is a midpoint where we could start generating plant-based fuel and at the same time keep the rainforest and its ecosystem healthy.

Although currently there is no way of knowing if the palm oil biofuel is sustainable, there is a way we can still use palm oils for household products.

To support food using sustainably processed palm oil, you could buy from an RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified producer. RSPO certified companies and their suppliers are made sure they are not committing deforestation, unsustainable peat development, or exploitation in any part of the palm oil processing. On their website, you can check out products produced sustainably and companies that join the initiative!

In the meantime, if you are still uncertain about using palm-oil-related products, check out some of our favorite palm oil-free beauty brands!

Hopefully, one day, palm-oil biofuel can be regulated and processed with sustainability in mind. For starters, it would be great if the government could use similar mandatory certification as RSPO so we could completely replace fossil fuel along with other green energies.

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