The Malaysian government has been attempting, though feebly, to respond to the drastically increasing range of environmental effects that human activities have on the world today, the most worrying of which is probably global warming. Moreover, the government is also bound to its Kyoto Protocol requirement to reduce carbon emissions by 2012, and that as of 2005, we are actually way off the mark. To help repaint this bleak picture, the government is rather keen on producing palm oil biodiesel, not just because it believes that it would help Malaysia achieve the target, but also because the country’s economy would benefit greatly, as we are the world’s number one palm oil producer. The recent sequencing of the oil palm genome was good news for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), as such an achievement would open the door for production breakthroughs, that could help create high-yield, disease- resistant, pest defying varieties of the crop, and subsequently boost hopes of palm oil biofuel.
However, a nasty string of reports, articles and studies have emerged, all bearing news that turn palm oil biofuel (POB) from a Godsend against global warming into Satan. Esteemed scientific publications, such as Science, and National Geographic magazine have noted the various vagaries of POB, from environmental to social. Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, went as far as to say “As a biofuel, it (POB) is a failure”. Sadly however, the MPOC has responded to all this scientific evidence with allegations of protectionism, as shown in a 24 February 2007 article by its chairman, Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron. In addition to the allegations, Mr Basiron made several factual errors, supposedly to further the cause of POB. However, as USAToday noted, “palm oil’s lustre has faded on the biofuel scene” and here’s why, plus the reasons it should stay that way.
Forest destruction: The fact is, palm oil is a plant, and plants need land to grow. To get land in a country not known for its land area, like Malaysia, something has to go, and unfortunately, that something will be tropical rainforest. OilChange International estimates that if current rates of deforestation for oil palm plantations continue, 98% of Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest will be gone in just 15 years. The aforementioned ‘current rates’ are merely the rates that are needed for Malaysia to export POB, mainly to the European Union. If the entire Malaysian vehicle fleet is mandated to run itself on POB, I’m willing to bet that Malaysia won’t have any forests by the time I’m married (I’m 15+ now), since obviously the government will want a Malaysian company, perhaps SimeDarby to produce POB for local consumption. Willie Smits, who set up StarVision, a satellite mapping service that charts the rainforests’ decline, says “…the areas where companies are getting permission for oil palm plantations are those of high-conservation forest.” This means that as the craze for POB becomes more frenzied, species such as the Sumatran tiger, Asian elephant and Borneo’s orang-utans are going to be swept aside by chainsaws and bulldozers, whose onslaughts are masterminded by POB. In our earnestness to capture a slice of the world’s biofuel market, our natural species must not be victimised, and if it is the West who has realized this problem, then we must not cry foul and butcher these animals anyway. Malaysia has been designated as one of the world's 18 megadiverse countries largely because of these animals, which have also generated tourism revenue. Deforestation will also see other environmental problems, notably flash flooding, as powerful tropical storms erode the exposed soil, subsequently clogging up our rivers. Not only that, our rivers will also run dry and thus be unable to sustain marine life as water catchment areas will have been destroyed for oil palm plantations. Moreover, extensive deforestation would also contribute to rivers drying up during droughts, as forested land typically stores water and releases it back into nearby waterways during extreme dry spells. While its’ true that laws do exist to protect our forests, historically, how effective have they been? Let’s not take the risk, and eschew palm oil for our forests.
Social Crises: The forests in Malaysia don’t just provide shelter to flora and fauna, but also house vast communities of Orang Asli. Besides the environmental degradation caused by deforestation, these communities, already increasingly fragile, would suffer a possibly fatal blow if palm oil biofuel continues to be promoted. The fact is, these people feel a very powerful attachment to their home, even if the forest might not mean much to us. To them, it is an inseparable aspect of their lives, and they, dare I say it, value the jungle more than most of us value our brick houses. Malaysia’s Orang Asli have powerful cultural, spiritual and religious ties to every tree, clearing and moss covered boulder. Being forbidden to have fixed settlements, the Penans, for example, migrate every time there is a death in the community. The Ibans cannot build homes in parts of the forest in where they can hear the calls of certain types of birds, which are God’s messengers that bring warnings of hardship. Malaysia, does not have a proud record of dealing with the Orang Asli, ranging from indifferent to downright nasty. Having not adopted UN International Labour Organisation Convention No 169 (1989) that removes “assimilationist” orientated international standards towards indigenous rights, the government has also not sufficiently protected them in their natural residence, as proven by the recent barrage of news that Penan girls were raped by loggers in the area. Malaysian activist posted on his blog that the Penans “ancestral lands were seized for oil palm and acacia plantations as well as destroying their forests, the source of their food”. This goes to show that if we continue to promote palm oil, we could kill the Orang Asli.
Food vs. Fuel: Palm kernel oil is a surprisingly essential food product, being used in margarine, chocolate, cream, condensed milk, doughnut fillings, biscuits, cakes, swwets, cream for coffees, peanut butter, various baked products and even as a supplement in animal food. Palm oil is also used in frying, as it is resistant to high heat. Food products with palm oil, or palm kernel oil, last longer, give food products added volume, a softer texture and a far lower trans fat content. As such, people with obesity have been advised to opt for palm oil food products, plus, it’s generally cheaper than imported canola or olive oil. However, the past three years have seen a 90% jump in palm oil prices, and I would bet that it is in part due to the squeeze caused by expropriating food for fuel. Moreover, as the global food crisis deepens, global agriculture output can no longer keep up with consumption. While oil palm is not a grain, its usage as a meat supplement renders it vulnerable to the recent spike in newly- prosperous meat eaters, and its’ prices could increase again. If you’re a capitalist, or a farmer, that’s a boon, but to regular citizens, it’s a burden. This could also spell doom for health- conscious citizens, and eventually to the farmers, as annoyed consumers flee from palm oil in droves. And the government seriously does not need to spend precious ringgits trying to subsidize margarine.
The Effectiveness of Palm Oil as A Fuel: Measurement of effectiveness of any biofuel inevitably yields comparisions with petroleum. The obvious first question is price at the pump. Well, M.R. Chandran, former head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association said that crude oil would now have to be as much as $130 a barrel before palm-oil-based biodiesel is competitive. As oil prices currently hover around $70 ($66.27 as of 3rd July 2009) a barrel, it’s safe to say that palm oil looks hopelessly outdone, and that despite EU mandates for 30% of vehicles to run on biofuel, consumers could be returning to petroleum as I write.Moreover, the energy balance of POB, which is the energy input vs. the output stands at an average of 7, compared to 8 for sugarcane ethanol and up to 36 for cellulosic ethanol. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, POB, like any other biofuel, is not carbon neutral. Heavy amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, like methane, nitrogen oxide and such, are released during cultivation, harvesting, transportation, and processing. In fact, the carbon released when tropical rainforest is cleared for oil palm plantations creates a carbon debt of 83 years, and if peatland rainforest is cleared, the debt soars to 423 years! Using all this data and statistics provided by National Geographic Magazine, October 2007 shows that the actual carbon reduction of POB is actually just 28% compared to petroleum, paltry, when you consider that to actually halt global warming, a reduction of 12 billion metric tons by 2057, a reduction of 50% is required . Palm oil biofuel, like all other food crops, is therefore unsuitable for our cars and trucks.
In conclusion, it is my sincere hope that the Malaysian government abandons any and all palm oil biofuel plans, both domestically and internationally, and directs funds to alternatives that are really green (hydrogen fuel cells and cellulosic ethanol). Scientists predict that not only is warming occurring faster than previously predicted, but that even if all emissions stop now, the Earth will still warm by about 3.6 degrees Celcius; so badly have we roasted our planet.We have only a small, fast closing window left to pull Earth back from a point of no return. Why then, do we keep bouncing off the walls?