Continued expansion of industrial-scale oil palm plantations on the island of Borneo will become a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 unless strong forest and peatland protections are enacted and enforced, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.
The study, conducted by Yale and Stanford researchers, found that about two-thirds of lands outside of protected areas in the Ketapang District of West Kalimantan Province in Indonesian Borneo are leased to oil palm agribusiness companies. If these leases are converted to oil palm at current expansion rates, by 2020 monotypic palm stands will occupy more than a third of regional lands and intact forests will decline to less than 5 percent from approximately 15 percent in 2008.
The researchers were surprised to learn that 50 percent of oil palm plantations were established on peatlands through last year. When peat soils are drained for oil palm cultivation, they begin to release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The study found that if oil palm expansion continues, with no restrictions on peatland development, almost 90 percent of oil palm’s greenhouse gas emissions will come from peatlands by 2020.
“Preventing oil palm establishment on peatlands will be critical for any greenhouse gas emissions-reduction strategy,” said Kimberly Carlson, a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and co-author of the study with Lisa Curran, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University.
Carlson pointed out that even if future oil palm expansion is halted in forests and peatlands, greenhouse gas emissions will decline by only 3 percent to 4 percent. She said that instead of simply placing a moratorium on oil palm expansion, “protecting secondary and logged forests, as well as peatlands, is the strategy that most effectively reduces carbon emissions and maintains forest cover.”