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Oil Palm Plantations and Greenhouse Gases Print E-mail

The Jakarta Post

Dr. Rosediana Suharto | Wed, 12/02/2009

Many issues concerning palm oil have been brought to the fore by NGOs both inside and outside the country. Most of the issues are negative - it seems that there is nothing positive about oil palm plantations, which have been around for hundreds of years. The most concerning thing is that almost all of the negative issues are based on input from Indonesian citizens and foreign researchers. However, the same organizations fail to highlight issues regarding other edible oils, like soybean, rapeseed and sunflower oils.

This gives the impression that other vegetable oils are better or more environmentally friendly than palm oil, leading to lingering questions: In this era of openness, should we allow citizens of other countries to judge whether what we are doing is right or wrong based on their standards? Isn't Indonesia a sovereign country with sovereign rights like other countries in the world?

Obligation of industrialized countries

Greenhouse gases (GHG) have long been discussed, and we would do well to remember that the Kyoto Protocol was made and ratified in line with the goal to keep atmospheric GHG within a safe range. To achieve this goal, the Kyoto Protocol set industrialized countries' implementation of the emission reduction at 5 percent below the 1990 emission rate during the period of 2008-2012 through the Joint Implementation, Emission Trading and Clean Development Mechanism.

Meanwhile, developing countries are not obligated to reduce their GHG but have the right to receive support, on a voluntary basis, from industrialized countries to reduce their GHG and to cope with climate changes. As many as 184 countries have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, while only one developed country has signed but not ratified it, i.e. the US.

From the above, we can conclude that we should have received support from industrialized countries instead of criticism regarding oil palm plantations as high emitters of GHG and being advised to stop planting activities. 

Indonesia's GHG emissions have been an issue since 1977-1978, when devastating forest fires broke out in Indonesia due to the El Nino phenomenon. At that time, there was a prolonged dry season, leading to forest and peatland fires. Among the various papers about GHG emissions released by Indonesia, the one most referred to is PEAT CO2: Assessment of CO2 emissions from drained peatlands in SE Asia (Wetlands International, Delft Hydraulics and Alterra Wageningen University, 2006). This report has been repeatedly quoted by major international institutions like the World Bank, UNFCCC and the International Peat Society.

Further study shows that the above data was generally based on estimation and mostly written in a range or sometimes in the median value. This is possibly because of the use of different "inventory" so that there was a great range in determining the size of the area.

Determining the size of peatlands was based only on literary studies because it was difficult to get accurate results from research using aerial photos. In fact, the calculation of carbon stored in peatlands requires the accurate size of the area with definite peat thickness, volume and density. 

Measurement without field research will not give accurate results, let alone when the estimation of the area size is too broad. A big question arises: How could institutions like the FAO and the World Bank believe data that was not based on field study, and even if measurements were taken, they were not accurate.

As an example of the above estimation, the size of peatlands in Indonesia ranges from 15.5 to 27 million hectares (estimation depends on who did the research and when it was done). The figures show a difference of 11.5 million hectares. If one hectare of peatland contains 632 tons of CO2/ha/year, there is error in the calculation of more than 900 million tons of CO2/ha/year. (Ref. PEAT CO2).

Emissions can be measured by the type of emissions released and reported yearly (see report of the Inventory US GHG Emission 1990-2007). For Indonesia, in general emissions were reported in 2007 during the forest fires, and in 2003 and in 2006. All were based on estimation.

GHG emission released by Indonesia? 

Most references estimate that Indonesia releases a huge amount of GHG emissions, the third largest in the world after America and China. According to several references, GHG emissions from the European Union are greater than those from Indonesia, but the countries base their calculation per country, not per bloc.

The above graph shows the estimation of GHG emitted by Indonesia in 2003. Similar data for 2008 is not available. GHG emitted by Indonesia was mainly due to deforestation and forest and peatland fires.

The above report said that some of the CO2 emissions in Indonesia were caused by deforestation. But why put all the blame on oil palm plantations? In fact, there are many forest-related activities in Indonesia, including logging (legal and illegal), farming, urban and infrastructure development, etc.


Currently there are only seven million hectares of oil palm plantations, although some NGOs say there are eight million or even 10 million hectares or more. According to WWF and other NGOs, forest damage in Indonesia was between 1.5 and two million hectares per year, so this means that in the 11 years since 1998, 22 million hectares of forests have been damaged plus another 10 million hectares due to the 1997-1998 forest fires. Therefore, the overall area damaged totals 32 million hectares. If oil palm plantations only cover seven million hectares, how about the remaining 25 million hectares?

Absorbing CO2 and storing carbon

Unlike similar commodities, palm trees absorb CO2 and store carbon, with an average of about 40 tons of carbon absorbed per hectare per year while 189 tons of carbon per hectare is stored. Under the definition of IPCC or EU Directive on Renewable Energy, a forested area is an area more than one hectare in size where the trees grow at a height of more than five meters with a canopy of 10 to 30 percent. Since oil palm trees are quite big, it could be said that oil palm plantations are forested areas. In Indonesia, in general oil palm plantations are established on areas where the forest has been cleared previously by forest concessionaires.


Statements made by international organizations about the release of GHG emissions by Indonesia and peatland management and deforestation have tainted the image of Indonesia. Worse, several buyer countries have introduced adverse terms, banning the importation of palm oil from Indonesia in the form of biofuel while private organization RSPO is making a requirement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and other nontariff barriers are imposed on Indonesian palm oil.

Facts that should be taken into account include: *Indonesia has been establishing oil palm plantations since the Dutch colonial administration, meaning that oil palm plantations are sustainable because they have been developed for hundreds of years. Some oil palm plantations belonging to PTPN state plantation company have been developed since the Dutch colonial era; PT PP London Sumatra has palm plantations that are hundreds of years old. *Most oil palm plantations are built on areas formerly developed by forest concessionaires and only a small part is built on former primary forest and peatland. *Most oil palm plantations in Kalimantan stand on low nutrient land where only tall grass used to grow. *Oil palm plantations make deforested areas green but GHG emission calculation is based on historical values. *NGOs and some international organizations that criticize Indonesia's oil palm plantations generally do not look at these facts. We should not let them continue to make statements that have economically harmed Indonesia as a palm oil producer.

The writer is the chairperson of the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission.

(Source: The Jakarta Post)

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