Palm oil trees have been a subject of quite a debate lately, as they are considered environmentally unsustainable. Adding to this, a new study just published in the journal Nature reveals that deforestation in the peat swamps of Malaysia, for the purpose of growing palm trees for biofuels, resulted in a release of locked carbon.
Environmentalists are lobbying against unsustainable methods for growing crops for biofuel. The arguments that come forward include the amount of emissions these plants save, the agricultural land they occupy and the deforestation in order to make space for their production.
Palm oil trees are predominantly grown in Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite the fact that biofuels are known to be the low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, and their use in these countries has resulted in a boost of their industry, areas with the size of Greece are cleared every year to make space for palm oil trees.
Palm oil is known to be a much cheaper alternative than rapeseed oil and soybean oil for biodiesel. European Union data, however, have shown that palm oil biodiesel is much more harmful than conventional fuel, when deforestation and peatland degradation are added to the equation.
The study focused on these areas in the Malaysian peninsular, where peatland swamp forests are replaced by palm oil tree plantations.
The results show that ancient carbon that has been trapped deep in the soil, has been released and dissolved in streams and rivers near deforested areas.
Chris Freeman, one of the authors of the report and an environmental scientist at the University of Bangor in Wales, stated that oil palm plantations in South East Asia present a threat to biodiversity and could contribute to raising amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He urged for better conservation practices of these fragile peatland ecosystems.
The paper indicates that 28,000 sq km of industrial plantations are found in the studied region, and by disturbing peat swamps, people add to the problem of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, instead of solving it.