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Palm oil is a champion crop in environmental sustainability

The proposed Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December 2009 has generated intense interests from the EU and USA to advance their initiatives on reducing carbon emission to fight global warming and climate change. The EU which is hosting the summit is expected to aim for a successful adoption of an international emission mitigation agreement. However, as there are still many issues to be resolved in order to agree to a common position, the NGOs are expected to intensify their lobbying efforts on policy-makers to keep up the pace of negotiations.

In the run-up to the December event, stakeholders should watch closely the arguments that will dominate the debate. The focus will be on the position of individual countries regarding the amount of green house gas(GHG) that they emit to the atmosphere. If a country is a net emitter of GHG, it will be labeled as a “carbon source”. If it is a net sequester of GHG it will be regarded as a “carbon sink” . The largest source of GHG responsible for the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere over the last 100 years is mainly attributed to fossil fuel, which is reported to be responsible for up to 80 % of total increase in global emissions. Global warming, when linked to carbon dioxide emission should be attributed to this fossil source. The developed countries, which emit a high per capita CO2, will likely point fingers at countries with large population base like China and India, therefore denying their role in increasing global emissions.

To further divert world attention, issues of minor relevance such as rainforests conservation will be brought into mainstream discussions. Many EU and US NGOs are already seen to be forming or aligning themselves with their favourite rainforest and orang utan conservation movements by preparing reports to champion this cause in the tropics. Agricultural crops of tropical countries are often blamed by these NGOs for deforestation and used as a disguise for causing global warming. Of course, the web pages of these NGO also call for donations from the public to join them in pursuing the rainforest conservation initiatives, where apparently a lot of money can be raised through the rainforest and orang utan conservation debate. After all, the cuddly orang utan easily moves the emotions of uninformed consumers.

Some of the absurd arguments already proposed by global warming scientists and NGOs are as follows:-

The USA and the EU which previously were a “carbon source” because of deforestation for agricultural development many decades ago are now labeled as a net “carbon sink” because some agricultural land areas abandoned by farmers have reverted to become forests again. The catch in this argument is that although the original CO2 released during the first deforestation is still in the atmosphere, the global warming scientists are now ignoring this fact and are assuming that if agricultural land is reforested, the land will automatically become a new carbon sink. Logically, the reforested land can only sequester a fraction ( generally less than 100% ) of the CO2 originally released to the atmosphere during the first deforestation. It would be impossible for the same land to revert to a 100% carbon sink status again unless the new forest exceeds the carbon capture capacity of the original forest. It is ironic that the global CO2 emission map of some climate change scientists only focuses on emission effect of deforestation over recent times in order to show favourable carbon sink effect of developed countries. Developing countries which still need to clear land to develop for agriculture will show poorly as an increasing carbon source. The fact that developed countries need to reforest because they have little forest left and the need of developing countries to develop their agricultural industries because they have not been developed yet will likely to be ignored in the debate. Furthermore, the emission effect of fossil fuel use is likely to be ignored in order to have a convincing map for the USA and Europe to avoid carbon emission and global warming blame and therefore conveniently shifting it to deforestation in developing countries.

Based on the above scheming, South East Asian countries will be depicted in a global map as a “carbon source” because agricultural lands are created through so called recent deforestation. The global warming scientists argue that for the developed countries, where deforestation was carried out decades ago, past CO2 emissions would be treated as “sunk costs” in their creative accounting, and if farmers voluntarily reforest, the land is regarded as a new carbon sink. In this way they believe that even if the agricultural land is not reforested, the land is no longer regarded as a carbon source because the CO2 from the original deforestation is already in the atmosphere. Fortunately, this simplistic argument of indirect land use effect (ILUC) was questioned in the recent US House of Representatives debate last week, and they rightly decided not to allow, in the next 5 years pending a further study, the use of such ILUC calculations in arriving at sustainable biofuel criteria, because if proper evaluation is carried out, corn biofuel cannot pass as a carbon sink when the past deforestation effect of the land is taken into consideration.

Many versions of this “creative accounting” of carbon emissions are likely to surface as we approach the Copenhagen meeting. Arbitrary cut-off dates for deforestation to develop agricultural land have already been proposed in the RSPO criteria and the EU renewable energy directives. Emission capping, emission saving limits and reduced emission from deforestation and degradation (REDD) initiatives are being proposed by some circles in the EU to help prevent deforestation. Unsubstantiated NGO reports are regularly surfacing to justify some of these arguments to push the global warming blame to deforestation of rain forests in South East Asia. For these obvious reasons, the palm oil industry is dragged in and used as a camouflage to devert attention from the actual problem. With all these proposed initiatives to prevent deforestation of tropical forests, numerous possibilities for creative accounting will be available and many potential regulations will follow which essentially will become trade barriers to products exported from developing countries. Logically, if 80 % of global CO2 emission is from fossil fuel, 80 % of the debate should be dedicated to finding solutions to mitigate the contribution of fossil fuel emission mainly by the developed countries.

If only 20% of global emissions is attributed to deforestation, we must also logically look at where agricultural land areas are residing and attribute the loss of forests to these lands. These agricultural lands carry with them carbon emission debts due to deforestation irrespective of whether the forests were cleared decades ago or recently because the CO2 remains in the atmosphere and acts as a GHG to raise global temperature. The rainforests and temperate forests may vary in their carbon emission capacity when deforested but the variation is less than 20 % and the global warming blame should also apply equitably to deforestation that has occurred in the developed countries.

If we revisit the data that world agricultural land area is over 4967 million hectares, and assume that these areas make up most of the other 20% emission due to past deforestation, the proportion of total oil palm area for both Indonesia and Malaysia of slightly over 10 million hectares would not constitute much compared to world agricultural area. Therefore, it follows that deforestation due to the development of agricultural land to plant oil palm is equally small. If the 4.5 million hectares of oil palm area of Malaysia, being part of our agricultural land, constitute only 0.09 % of global agricultural areas and therefore assumed to account for only 0.09 % of global deforestation due to the country’s oil palm agricultural development, it does not deserve to be smeared as a cause of deforestation as propagated by some overzealous NGOs. Further, if deforestation as opposed to fossil fuel is only contributing 20 % towards global warming effects, Malaysian palm oil’s contribution of 0.09 % of global deforestation will only have 20% of 0.09% fifth or 0.018% of global warming effect. If the temperature rise, as projected by global warming scientists, is to increase by 2 degrees centigrade in the tropics in the next few decades, the effect of 0.018% contribution from deforestation due to Malaysian oil palm plantations is mind-bogglingly small – 0.00018 x 2 or 0.00036 degrees centigrade! I must admit that as an engineer, my arithmetic calculation is often reduced to approximation to the nearest 1 or 2 decimal points and the above figure should just be read as zero.

I have not even added the carbon sequestration effect of the oil palm as forest species when planted on agricultural land in the calculations. If global warming scientists insist on painting a rosy picture of the US becoming a carbon sink because some farmers allow trees to re-grow on their abandon farm land, it must similarly be recognised that the oil palm farmers have been doing just that all along i.e. planting trees on their agricultural land; therefore oil palm cultivation should be equally regarded as a carbon sink. However, unlike the reforested abandoned farm land of the USA which has minimal output, oil palm plantations also allow the world to be supplied with a vital food source globally while locally, the crop keeps poverty away from ravishing the rural community of developing countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Columbia, Nigeria and many others. But the many proposals for “creative carbon accounting” (or in short cheating) being suggested by vested interest groups in the developed countries will not recognise the advantageous carbon sink attributes of the oil palm to mitigate global warming unless the developing countries have a real say in the negotiations in the Copenhagen Climate Change Meeting in December this year.

(As a footnote, I need to inform that the global warming scientists do not know where a significant 33 % of total disappearance of CO2 is attributed to. The oceans absorb a significant amount of CO2. Increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere also facilitate more photosynthesis by plants leading to greater utilisation of CO2. Tropical and temperate forests absorb a lot of CO2. These still could not account for the remaining 33% disappearance of CO2. In the absence of reliable scientific explanation, global warming scientists resort to modeling climate change using assumptions and scenario buildings. Under such situations, any likelyhood of global warming scenario can be generated by the models depending on the assumptions used. Non scientists and lawmakers should not rush into any conclusions regarding global warming as all that the scientists can do at present is to develop models and simulate outcomes based on their favorite assumptions.)

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