Anyone who follows the news would have heard of the alleged connection being made between the production of palm oil and global warming. Slash and burn agriculture, the destruction of peatlands and vast monoculture plantations are said to emit unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, effectively killing the planet.
Without denying that problems exist, it is time for a more balanced look at these issues. In particular, the reality on the ground in Malaysia, a palm oil-producing country, is often quite different.
The traditional argument from environmental groups basically runs like this: large areas of the rainforest are destroyed and turned into oil palm plantations. Massive amounts of carbon stocked in the forests are released, contributing to global warming.
On the issue of deforestation, it may come as a surprise to many that Malaysia, after decades of brisk economic growth, still ranks in the top 20 of countries in terms of tree cover.
Excluding land under production, a whopping 67.6% of the land is covered with trees, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. As Figure 1 shows, this compares very favourably with Western European countries.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Malaysia has dedicated more than 15% of its territory to protected forest, which exceeds 5 million ha. The World Bank further notes that Malaysia´s forest cover has increased over the past few years, albeit not by much.
In truth, this should not even be such a big surprise. After all, Malaysia had committed almost 25 years ago at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to maintaining a minimum forest cover of 50%. That goal was reiterated at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Copenhagen in 2009. So, Malaysia has ‘over-delivered’ on that promise.
Does this mean that there is no issue with GHG emissions in palm oil production? No, such a claim would of course be a little outlandish. Just like every other economic activity, the production of palm oil too produces emissions. This is a subject that has to be dealt with responsibly.