The demand for palm oil in Europe has soared in the last two decades, first for use in food and cosmetics, and more recently for fuel. This versatile and cheap oil is used in about 10 percent of supermarket products, from chocolate to toothpaste, accounting for 21 percent of the global market for edible oils.
Palm oil produces the most energy of all vegetable oils for each unit of volume when burned. In much of Europe it is used as a substitute for diesel fuel, though in the Netherlands, the government has encouraged its use for electricity.
Supported by hundreds of millions of euros in national subsidies, the Netherlands rapidly became the leading importer of palm oil in Europe, taking in 1.7 million tons last year, nearly double the previous year.
The increasing demand has created damage far away. Friends of the Earth estimates that 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia from 1985 to 2000 was caused by new palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, the amount of land devoted to palm oil has increased 118 percent in the last eight years.
In December, scientists from Wetlands International released their calculations about the global emissions caused by palm farming on peatland.
Peat is an organic sponge that stores huge amounts of carbon, helping balance global emissions. Peatland is 90 percent water. But when it is drained, the Wetlands International scientists say, the stored carbon gases are released into the atmosphere.
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. “These emissions generated by peat drainage in Indonesia were not counted before,” said Mr. Kaat. “It was a totally ignored problem.” For the moment Wetlands is backing the certification system for palm oil imports.
But some environmental groups say palm oil cannot be produced sustainably at reasonable prices. They say palm oil is now cheap because of poor environmental practices and labor abuses.
“Yes, there have been bad examples in the palm oil industry,” said Arjen Brinkman, a company official at Biox, a young company that plans to build three palm oil electrical plants in Holland, using oil from palms grown on its own plantations in a manner that it says is responsible.
“But it is now clear,” he said, “that to serve Europe’s markets for biofuel and bioenergy, you will have to prove that you produce it sustainably — that you are producing less, not more CO2.”