How the palm oil industry goes net zero
- Palm oil is often associated with deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, but with the global demand for vegetable oil cultivation, it could be a sustainable solution.
- Growing palm oil provides a high yield, with relatively little disturbance to native species compared to other oil crops such as rapeseed and soybeans.
- Emissions can be captured and converted to energy as part of the production process, bringing industry closer to net zero emissions.
The world’s population will reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, with significant growth in the least developed countries. Meanwhile, the amount of arable land per person is declining, with an expected decline from 0.38 hectares in 1970 to 0.15 hectares per person by 2050. Global consumption of vegetable oils has more than doubled over the years. last two decades, increasing from 87 million tonnes in 2000/2001 to 208 million tonnes in 2020/2021. This begs the question: how can we produce sustainable vegetable oils to feed the growing world population while preserving the natural environment?
Palm oil could be the answer
Palm oil tops the list of oilseed crops for yield. It takes less than an eighth more land than soybeans to produce the same amount of oil. Today, palm oil accounts for 6% of all land cultivated for vegetable oils in the world; but produces more than a third of the total production.
In addition to the yield benefit, oil palm cultivation results in relatively less disturbance of species habitats. Oil palm is a perennial crop and a typical oil palm lives twenty to thirty years. In contrast, most other large-scale edible oil crops must be replanted annually, which involves intensive and highly mechanized plowing, planting and harvesting. This high level of activity means considerable disturbance to native species.
Transition to sustainable production and net zero
Although palm oil has its benefits, it is frequently associated with deforestation and significant greenhouse gas emissions. To address these concerns, the major palm oil producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, are actively promoting the production of sustainable palm oil and the transition to net zero emissions.
Among other oil crops, such as soybeans, rapeseed, and sunflowers, the palm has the most sustainable standards. The first industry standard for sustainability, introduced in 2004, was the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Indonesian sustainable palm oil and Malaysian sustainable palm oil followed in 2011 and 2013, respectively. This shows that the industry is taking the necessary steps to improve its sustainability performance.
Deforestation has slowed down
The Indonesian government has declared a moratorium on new forest clearing for activities such as palm plantations or logging. This has led to a historically low level of deforestation in 2020. Meanwhile, as promised at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, Malaysia will cap palm oil cultivation at 6.5 million. hectares and is committed to its efforts to maintain a natural forest cover of more than 50% of its area. its total land mass. At present, Malaysia’s forest cover is 55.3% with an area of 18.27 million hectares.
To improve biodiversity and conserve wildlife nationwide, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council launched the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund in 2006. Several programs have already been launched, including the Wildlife Rescue Unit, which ensures long-term survival. term of orangutans. Until 2017, he carried out more than 500 rescue and transfer operations, including 52 Borneo orangutans.
Emissions reduction with methane capture
During the production of crude palm oil, a liquid by-product called palm oil factory effluent (POME) is generated. POME is considered to be a contributor to global climate change because biogas, which mainly consists of methane, is formed naturally when it breaks down in the absence of oxygen.
Methane, a greenhouse gas with a greenhouse gas potential 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, is released directly into the atmosphere if the collection of biogas is not properly controlled. Fortunately, methane is a renewable energy source for power generation, and many palm oil factories are going net zero by capturing the produced biogas and converting it into renewable energy.
Palm oil mills use biogas to generate electricity through gas turbines, either for internal consumption or for export to national grids, providing electricity to neighboring households. This paradigm shift prevents methane emissions into the atmosphere and generates green energy. In 2020, the annual production of biogas in Indonesia was around 56 million cubic meters; while 125 of the 452 oil mills in Malaysia operated a biogas plant. The green energy produced through this initiative has saved around 712 kt of CO2 per year.
Carbon reduction with biofuels
POME is a source of biogas and biofuels. Palm sludge oil, a term commonly used to describe residual POME oil, is an alternative feedstock for the production of biodiesel and hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO), which is a fully renewable diesel alternative. In addition, POME oil is considered a low quality cheap oil and is also classified as a material eligible for double counting of greenhouse gas savings under the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED). II.
Currently, POME oil is a waste feedstock that Neste – a producer of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel – uses to produce biofuels. In 2020, Indonesia and Malaysia produced around 1.4 million tonnes of POME oil. If all the POME oil produced had been used for biofuel production, this would have resulted in an energy content of 7.4% of total EU biodiesel consumption in 2019.
It is clear that palm oil could be the answer to the growing global demand for oil and fat. The palm oil industry has taken bold steps to protect the world’s tropical rainforests and their vulnerable biodiversity. The industry is well positioned to begin its sustainability journey and embrace net zero carbon emissions. While the palm oil industry is still criticized for its environmental impacts, it can now rebrand its sustainability story so that a net zero transition is not only possible, but immediately achievable.