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Strike a blow against Palm Oil Madness

By Climate Guest Contributor on March 24, 2008 at 5:52 pm

"Strike a blow against Palm Oil Madness"

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In Hell and High Water, Joe lays out his proposals for how to slow down our greenhouse gas emissions in the first half of this century (giving us the breathing space to eliminate them in the second half). His program primarily consists of deploying existing technology, and is quite doable, should we find the political will.

His last proposal, however, is “stop all tropical deforestation, while doubling the rate of new tree planting.” I’ve always considered this to be the toughest item on his list to acheive. ADM, Bunge and CargillSo it is encouraging to find a group that is working directly on pieces of the problem. Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has launched a campaign to stop U.S. agribusiness expansion in the rainforests. In a recent action they have asked Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) to sign a pledge to halt their palm oil madness. In particular, the pledge asks ADM to “once and for all commit to halting all direct or indirect engagement with companies that destroy tropical rainforest ecosystems for industrial biofuels.”

RAN is using a tactic that they have honed over the years: find a small number of U.S. companies connected to a problem and highlight that association to tarnish their public image until they back down from fostering the problem. It is often the case that a targeting a few high-profile firms provides significant leverage that would not be possible targeting individual plants or farmers. For example, at a RAN press event held at the ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, Ed Begley Jr. said,

“An ADM subsidiary, the Wilmar Group, is the world’s largest producer of palm-based biodiesel and is clearing tropical rainforests in Indonesia that are among the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered orangutan. U.S. agribusiness giants ADM, Bunge and Cargill account for 60 percent of the funding for Brazil’s booming soy crop. Soy has become a leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon as Brazil has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest exporter of soy, largely due to American farmers planting more corn for ethanol.”

This effort is part of RAN’s Rainforest Agribusiness (defending forests, family, farmers and our climate) campaign, which is one of four main thrusts. As part of their Global Finance (ending destructive investment) campaign, RAN has also been fighting the Wall Street investment banks to end their funding of coal power plants, and they have been quite dogged about pursuing their quarry. Their other campaigns are Freedom From Oil (jumpstarting Detroit), Old Growth (preserving endagnered forests).

Learn more about RAN’s ADM pledge petition.

– Earl Killian

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18 Responses to Strike a blow against Palm Oil Madness

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Here is my understanding of what is happening in Southest Asia:

    (1) Illegal loggers take the tress. Big bucks.

    (2) Palm oil trees are planted by the plantation ‘owners’.

    (3) Biodiesel reactors are set up to process the palm oil.

    (4) Palm oil prices go too high, becuase palm oil is a highly desired food. Biodiesel refineries are shut down because they cannot afford to compete.

    That is, I believe, the current situation. Now go back to (1) and repeat.

    And repeat and repeat…

  2. Paul K says:

    If Joe is supporting reforestation, it is a welcome change and brings him in line with environmentalists. Perhaps the best rain forest protection and replenishment program is land purchase for conservancy, an of the people solution. When and how will corn and palm oil be replaced?

  3. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K raises the issue of land purchasing for conservancy. This is an approach I support myself in the US with my own funds. In places where the rule of law is laxer, it is unclear whether this approach works well. A deed to the land won’t necessarily stop someone from cutting down the rainforest. In contrast, finding 3 companies that represent 60% of the market for the products is a bottleneck that is easily exploited.

  4. Joe says:

    My support for reforestation is not a change. I just wouldn’t call it an offset.

  5. Nylo says:

    Did you all know that a cultivated field sequesters more CO2 than an old forest? That growing young trees or plants are better than old ones, for the same ocuppied area, for that task?

    Of course I’m not defending the killing of forests and jungles. But only as long as CO2 is concerned, doing it in order to cultivate the same land is definitely not a bad thing. Doing it with a different purpose, without reforesting or cultivating the land afterwards, is very bad though. And burning the forests in the destruction process is terrible of course. At least they could burn it in a useful way, producing energy, or use the wood somehow avoiding the burning process…

  6. Joe says:

    Nylo — I’m not sure your claim is true. Please provide a web link. I think the reality about old forests are much more complicated than your simple assertion — plus I do not believe your claim is true at all for rain forests.

  7. Nylo says:

    An old forest is a forest that no longer grows, or whose growth becomes very little. A forest that cannot become bigger, and where new plants appear when old plants allow to, by dying. It is no longer a CO2 draining point, it is just a big carbon storage point which has reached its maximum carbon storage capability. When a plant dies or a leaf or a branch falls or is eaten, the carbon it sequestered from the atmosphere will be liberated back, as a result of its recycling by the animals, insects and microorganisms in the local fauna, all of which will liberate carbon back to the atmosphere in the form of CO2 or methane. So you have CO2 being drained, yes, but more slowly, and at the same time you have carbon being released back to the atmosphere by local fauna. Also, as a tree grows, there is a point where it will find structural limits to continue growing, the limits depending on the tree species. But it won’t cause it to die. The tree will be there, getting resources from the soil, but growing only as much as it loses branches or other parts which will feed the remaining ecosystem that liberates carbon back to the atmosphere, and limiting the capability of other smaller or younger plants to really grow and increase the overall biomass. From that point on, almost all of the benefit from the already limited capability of the plant to sequester carbon is lost to the carbon-liberating animals, insects and microorganisms of the local ecosystem.

    By the way, I assume that you know that liberating methane to the atmosphere also means increasing atmospheric CO2, as the methane will turn into CO2 and H2O in the long term in the atmosphere: (CH4)+2(O2) -> (CO2)+2(H2O)).

    So for you to have a real CO2 draining process in a given terrain, you need PLANT life to actually grow. To grow more than it dies or is eaten by the local fauna, I mean. This happens in young, growing forests (but not in old ones and not in most jungles, where the total biomass remains quite stable) and in cultivated fields.

    Cultivated fields are especially important because the conditions are controlled as to maximize the plant growth, for obvious economical reasons, so here we reach the top capability of plant-life to grow, and growing plant life means carbon being sequestered from the atmosphere. But in those fields you don’t have (or you have but it is very small in comparison) a local CO2-producing animal / insect / microorganisms ecosystem living thanks to the carbon sequestered by the plants, like in old forests and jungles. So you have a big CO2 drain without feeding a CO2-producing local fauna.

    Where does all the CO2 sequestered by the plants go? It will go to our own use after recollection, or to the animals we feed on. In the end, it will all go back to the atmosphere, we burn it, or we and our animals eat and the cells burn it for energy and we will send it back as CO2 as we breath, and methane will be produced by bacteries from what our bodies discard. In that sense, the balance in the long term is not different to what happens with an old forest, but the ecosystem is much larger, as large as the food travels, and it is us the ones mostly benefitting from the sequestered CO2 in our part of the cycle, and the cycle itself involves greater ammounts of CO2 exchange in both ways, but the cultivated use of the terrain drastically and immediately increases the carbon-sequestering part of the cycle while the carbon-liberating part will only slowly increase as the new food production leads to increased population, with a net gain in the sequestered CO2 in the process. The drawback is biodiversity, as it is logical. The more we and our domesticated animals feed on it, the less other wild animals will be able to. But there is a net gain as to life.

    Some people say that we have reached or exceeded the limit ammount of human life that the Earth can hold. I say that as long as there are cultivable but uncultivated terrains, we haven’t. We are far from the limit. But of course, we do not want to reach the real limit. We want to keep as much biodiversity as posible and to do it preferably in their natural areas, which means leaving some terrains uncultivated and not optimized for CO2 exchange and food production.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Nylo, you are ignoring the cutting and burning of the rainforest, which creates an enormous carbon debt that cannot be repaid by the palm oil plantation that follows. Consider Fargione’s recent analysis in Science:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/319/5867/1235
    In the abstract they write: ‘Biofuels are a potential low-carbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.’

  9. Nylo says:

    No, I’m not ignoring it. Obviously, if you burn a forest to create a cultivated field, you are in the first place adding a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere that will take very long to recover through the intensive use of the land for optimal plant growth. I’m well aware of that. But I’m only comparing already stablished land use. Right now, any square kilometer dedicated to agriculture is sequestering more CO2 than a square kilometer of jungle in a similar climatic area.

    There are ways to counter a bit the instant CO2 increase effect of destroying the jungle for cultivating fields. Instead of just burning it all in situ, you can use the wood, for furnitures or paper, and the carbon will stay trapped for decades more, and you can burn the parts that you cannot use in an incinerating electrical plant, which will add CO2 in the same way as burning the forest in situ, but producing electricity at the same time, so that on the other hand you don’t need to burn some ammount of other fosil fuels for that energy and you save those emissions.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    Nylo, in your first part you are trying to redefine the problem away. Unfortunately, those who slash and burn the rainforest are not deterred by your handwaving. RAN is targeting them; you are not.

    Earlier you said, “killing of forests and jungle … in order to cultivate the same land is definitely not a bad thing.” I cited a peer-reviewed paper that suggests that it is very definitely a bad thing as far as CO2 is concerned, and you have no response other than to redefine the problem to your liking?

    In your second part you are only offering conjecture. Where is your data? Have you done any calculations based on data in the literature?

    The scientists that study these things go out into the rainforest and take samples to produce their estimates, or they cite papers that have done so. The Fargione paper cited numerous such papers, and averaged results, for example. In the same issue of Science, there was also the Searchinger paper:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/319/5867/1238
    In it, in Table D-7 you will find their estimate of the losses: 126.7 tonnes C/ha in vegetation, and 47.5 tonnes C/ha in soils for tropical rainforest. Their estimate of the gross uptake from regrowth is 0.9 tonnes C/ha/yr. This directly contradicts your assertions.

  11. Nylo says:

    The key is the destruction process. In human history, cultivated fields have grown as the population has grown, and this has meant a slow destruction of forests, but CO2 concentration didn’t significantly change until we started to massively burn fossil fuels.

    Rainforests and jungles, although no longer draining points, are massive storage points of carbon. Just burning them means liberating a huge ammount of it to the atmosphere as CO2. Although the later continuous growing and recollection of vegetables succcesfully drains CO2, it would take decades for as much biomass as previously existed to be created.

    So what I say is that the new land-use is better for sequestering CO2, but you have to be careful as to the way you make the previous jungle or forest disappear. Just letting it burn in situ is strongly negative. I didn’t dispute that. Finding a good use for all that biomass, either by manufacturing items or paper with the wood or by generating electrical energy in the burning process are better solutions. But in the longer term, no matter how you got rid of the wild vegetation, the CO2 you liberated will come back with the agriculture, and from that point on you only have a benefitial increased CO2 draining capability.

  12. Earl Killian says:

    Nylo, first you are painting a scenario that does not reflect reality (reality is that the rainforest is cleared by burning). Second, you ignored the data I provided you above. Just the carbon stored in the soils and lost because of clearing could take over 50 years to repay (47.50/0.9 = 52.7). Third, burning carbon stored in the vegetation for electricity doesn’t make it OK; that is very much like burning fossil fuels: it adds to the CO2 of the atmosphere. Decades or centuries we might get back some of that CO2, but we don’t have decades and centuries. You are also ignoring the scale of clearing that would be necessary to produce biofuels.

  13. Paul K says:

    Earl Killian,
    I would very much like to know which land conservancies you support and any that you might not. Perhaps Joe will let you do a post on this topic.

  14. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K, I don’t think it is worth a post. My largest donations go to Save the Redwoods League and the Sempervirens Fund. I prefer to give to funds near to home because it is easier to evaluate what they are doing (e.g. visit proposed purchases). I am impressed with the way both of them work with landowners, sometimes for decades, to find win-win solutions to keep land as habitat.

  15. Nylo says:

    Earl, let me tell you a story. There’s an interesting experiment taking place in Madrid, in Valdemingómez. Valdemingómez was a huge rubbish dump where most of the rubbish produced by Madrid’s inhabitants was taken, and there were also some incinerating power plants that produced electricity from that rubbish, with quite low efficiency, a lot of pollution and lots of CO2 emissions. Nowadays, it is still a rubbish dump, but it looks like a wonderful park, it still produces electricity and there is no pollution. And it has some very possitive consecuences for the CO2 issue.

    The rubbish dump in Valdemingómez has been put underground, and only organic rubbish is taken there. Natural processes of decomposition of that rubbish produces methane, which is stored and used in new power plants to produce energy in a more efficient way that it was done before, because producing electric energy from CH4 is quite efficient. There’s no air pollution, as the only results from that reaction are H2O, CO2 and heat, which is used for the electricity generation. The burning is very clean.

    The underground facility for the rubbish storage is huge, as you can guess. But the previous area was too, before it was put underground. Now, appart from the ecological benefit of more efficient energy production, which means less CO2 being put into the atmosphere for every kWH of energy, we have a park on the surface, with plants sequestering CO2 at the same time and a leisure area for enjoying natural life and playing sports.

    What’s the point I am trying to make? Well, what if, instead of making biofuel with the cultivated vegetables, you put them underground to slowly become methane, and use the methane to produce the energy? First, because of the return of the vegetables to methane is a slow process, you are effectively sequestering a lot of carbon in the short term, underground. Second, the costs to produce the fuel decrease: natural processes do it for you. Third, the electricity production is more efficient with methane than with biofuel.

    And I will go further: why don’t we EAT the part of the cultivated plants that we would normally eat, instead of creating that stupid biofuel which is making our food more expensive, and let the remaining parts be the ones becoming methane? Microorganisms won’t really care what you feed them with. Organic is organic.

    There are many interesting ways of sequestering CO2 while not affecting or maybe even improving our quality of life, that are worth trying. We only neec to be creative about it, instead of all that scaring and cutting of heads. Technology is our friend, not the enemy.

  16. Earl Killian says:

    Nylo, I find stories very interesting. Most people do. That is the power of stories. However, it is important to remember that the plural of “anecdote” is not data.

    I have no problem with capturing methane from landfills and using it to generate electricity. That is being done all around California these days, and it is a good thing.

    However, I don’t see that as proving the points you’ve made before. When scientists go out into the field to carefully collect data (e.g. measuring carbon in soil), I think it does a disservice to just dismiss that hard work with a wave of the hand and in effect say “my story is more powerful than their data”.

    Also, please know that plants are lousy at turning sunlight into chemical energy. A textbook of mine estimates that sugar cane (considered one of the best energy crops) is 0.38% efficient. For satisfying our energy needs, a 30% efficient Stirling dish in the desert is a much more modest use of land. It leaves far more land for wildlife habitat.

  17. tom closser says:

    Dear Permissions Editor,
    I am in the process of upgrading our new website http://www.alohabay.com
    I’m researching articles and statements for our Planet Section (please click on planet button that share essential information and industry knowledge about environmental issues our green consumers would be interested in
    My associate Angela White is looking for sites to link with.
    I found the March 25th, 2008 posting by Nylo to be very useful
    I would greatly appreciate your consent to allow us to post your article on our website.
    If you do not control the copyright on all of the above mentioned material, I would appreciate any contact information you can give me regarding the proper rights holder(s), including current address(es). Otherwise, your permission confirms that you hold the right to grant the permission requested here.
    Your permission will not limit any future publications-including future editions and revisions-by you or others authorized by you.
    I would greatly appreciate your consent to my request.
    If you require any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at: 800-994-3267 x106 or tc@alohabay.com ]
    Please print & sign the release form below and Fax me a copy 888-647-5763
    Best Regards, Tom Closser
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  18. tom closser says:

    Sorry I guess I should have added more context.

    I’d like to post the entire back and forth. This discussion is getting to the core of the kinds of questions and commitments we are struggling with. We began sourcing palm wax as an alternative to paraffin and soy from Indonesia. We ended up building a fair-trade factory there. Even working with small farms there became difficult. This last year we switched over to using organic palm wax from Brazil. We are working with Ciranda and Agropalma. Oregon Tilth is helping us to get our products USDA certified.

    Overtime, we hope to educate candle buyers about the difference between using palm, soy, and paraffin not just in terms of indoor air pollution and clean burning but the effects on our planet.