...a reminder to take a close look at the WHOLE process, product, etc on an
individual basis before assuming it is good or bad, sustainable or not
sustainable. This article is primarily focused on palm oil but applies to
our entire quest toward renewable bio-fuels.
From: MRG_LCA-L [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Seungjun Lee
Sent: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 12:46 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Just an article you may be interested in
This is an article from NewYork Times. Any product or service
should be considered in a perspective of life cycle. Actually, in
biofuel production, the worst part is "agriculture", which means
most of environmental emissions come from this initial process,
agriculture. You can see that once you conduct an LCA on
[Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare]
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: January 31, 2007
AMSTERDAM, Jan. 25 ? Just a few years ago, politicians and
environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early
and rapid adoption of ?sustainable energy,? achieved in part by
coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel ? in particular, palm oil
from Southeast Asia.
Spurred by government subsidies, energy companies became so
enthusiastic that they designed generators that ran exclusively on
the oil, which in theory would be cleaner than fossil fuels like
coal because it is derived from plants.
But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm
plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began
to look more like an environmental nightmare.
Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of
huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of
chemical fertilizer there.
Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm
plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland,
which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the
world?s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists
believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the
United States and China, according to a study released in December
by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics,
both in the Netherlands.
?It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we
initially went into palm oil,? said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for
Wetlands, a conservation group.
The production of biofuels, long a cornerstone of the quest for
greener energy, may sometimes create more harmful emissions than
fossil fuels, scientific studies are finding.
As a result, politicians in many countries are rethinking the
billions of dollars in subsidies that have indiscriminately
supported the spread of all of these supposedly eco-friendly fuels
for vehicles and factories. The 2003 European Union Biofuels
Directive, which demands that all member states aim to have 5.75
percent of transportation run by biofuel in 2010, is now under
?If you make biofuels properly, you will reduce greenhouse
emissions,? said Peder Jensen, of the European Environment Agency
in Copenhagen. ?But that depends very much on the types of plants
and how they?re grown and processed. You can end up with a 90
percent reduction compared to fossil fuels ? or a 20 percent
He added, ?It?s important to take a life-cycle view,? and not to
?just see what the effects are here in Europe.?
In the Netherlands, the data from Indonesia has provoked
soul-searching, and helped prompt the government to suspend palm
oil subsidies. The Netherlands, a leader in green energy, is now
leading the effort to distinguish which biofuels are truly
The government, environmental groups and some of the Netherlands?
?green energy? companies are trying to develop programs to trace
the origins of imported palm oil, to certify which operations
produce the oil in a responsible manner.
Krista van Velzen, a member of Parliament, said the Netherlands
should pay compensation to Indonesia for the damage that palm oil
has caused. ?We can?t only think: does it pollute the
In the United States and Brazil most biofuel is ethanol (made from
corn in the United States and sugar in Brazil), used to power
vehicles made to run on gasoline. In Europe it is mostly local
rapeseed and sunflower oil, used to make diesel fuel.
In a small number of instances, plant oil is used in place of
diesel fuel, without further refinement. But as many European
countries push for more green energy, they are increasingly
importing plant oils from the tropics, since there is simply not
enough plant matter for fuel production at home.
On the surface, the environmental equation that supports biofuels
is simple: Since they are derived from plants, biofuels absorb
carbon while they are grown and release it when they are burned.
In theory that neutralizes their emissions.
But the industry was promoted long before there was adequate
research, said Reanne Creyghton, who runs Friends of the Earth?s
campaign against palm oil here.
Biofuelswatch, an environment group in Britain, now says that
?biofuels should not automatically be classed as renewable
energy.? It supports a moratorium on subsidies until more research
can determine whether various biofuels in different regions are
produced in a nonpolluting manner.
Beyond that, the group suggests that all emissions arising from
the production of a biofuel be counted as emissions in the country
where the fuel is actually used, providing a clearer accounting of
The demand for palm oil in Europe has soared in the last two
decades, first for use in food and cosmetics, and more recently
for fuel. This versatile and cheap oil is used in about 10 percent
of supermarket products, from chocolate to toothpaste, accounting
for 21 percent of the global market for edible oils.
Palm oil produces the most energy of all vegetable oils for each
unit of volume when burned. In much of Europe it is used as a
substitute for diesel fuel, though in the Netherlands, the
government has encouraged its use for electricity.
Supported by hundreds of millions of euros in national subsidies,
the Netherlands rapidly became the leading importer of palm oil in
Europe, taking in 1.7 million tons last year, nearly double the
The increasing demand has created damage far away. Friends of the
Earth estimates that 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia
from 1985 to 2000 was caused by new palm oil plantations. In
Indonesia, the amount of land devoted to palm oil has increased
118 percent in the last eight years.
In December, scientists from Wetlands International released their
calculations about the global emissions caused by palm farming on
Peat is an organic sponge that stores huge amounts of carbon,
helping balance global emissions. Peatland is 90 percent water.
But when it is drained, the Wetlands International scientists say,
the stored carbon gases are released into the atmosphere.
To makes matters worse, once dried, peatland is often burned to
clear ground for plantations. The Dutch study estimated that the
draining of peatland in Indonesia releases 660 million ton of
carbon a year into the atmosphere and that fires contributed 1.5
billion tons annually.
The total is equivalent to 8 percent of all global emissions
caused annually by burning fossil fuels, the researchers said.
?These emissions generated by peat drainage in Indonesia were not
counted before,? said Mr. Kaat. ?It was a totally ignored
problem.? For the moment Wetlands is backing the certification
system for palm oil imports.
But some environmental groups say palm oil cannot be produced
sustainably at reasonable prices. They say palm oil is now cheap
because of poor environmental practices and labor abuses.
?Yes, there have been bad examples in the palm oil industry,? said
Arjen Brinkman, a company official at Biox, a young company that
plans to build three palm oil electrical plants in Holland, using
oil from palms grown on its own plantations in a manner that it
says is responsible.
?But it is now clear,? he said, ?that to serve Europe?s markets
for biofuel and bioenergy, you will have to prove that you produce
it sustainably ? that you are producing less, not more CO2.?
Seungjun Lee, Graduate Student
Center for Environmental Policy
Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences
University of Florida