The environmental management of a crop is as important as the type of crop when it comes to emissions, according to a new study in Global Change Biology. The new research points out the fallacy of blaming a specific crop (e.g. palm oil) for emissions, when poorly managed alternatives can have greater environmental impacts.
Biofuels – in particular those derived from palm oil as a feedstock – offer a sustainable alternative to conventional fossil fuels associated with large carbon footprints. Despite this, some NGOs and governments support restricting palm oil-derived biofuels through national legislation. New research shows this approach towards specific crops or species is scientifically flawed.
Several environmental groups recently commissioned a report in an effort to lobby the European Union to limit use of palm oil based biofuels through their Renewable Energy Directive (RED). In the US, the EPA is set to decide whether palm-oil based biodiesel will be recognised as sustainable under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Here too, NGOs have lobbied hard to have palm oil excluded based on inaccurate ‘sustainability’ claims.
According to leading experts published in respected academic journal Global Change Biology – Bioenergy, any robust methodology to assess the ‘sustainability’ of biofuel feedstock should take into account ‘management potential’. Currently the EPA and EU sustainability criteria are largely based on aggregated data of crop species.
This is a sensible recommendation; poor management of a crop can lead to poor environmental outputs, just as strong management can improve the crop’s overall sustainability. In other words, the environmental outputs from bio-fuel feedstock are dependent on management practices, and should not be based solely on species of crop used. Good management of crops has the potential to “swing” the sustainability rating of the feedstock.
This is the case in Malaysia, where well managed palm oil plantations result in highly sustainable biofuel products. This biofuel can then be blended and used as a conventional fuel. This is a sustainable strategy – unlike fossil fuel, palm oil is a renewable resource. It is one of the most resource efficient feedstock currently technologically viable for biofuel production – far more sustainable then other crops that require much more land to achieve the same yields.
Some campaigners claim that palm oil is not sustainable despite its benefits to fossil fuel consumption. They argue that CO2 is emitted in instances where forests are converted to plantations.
This argument flawed in the case of palm oil grown in Malaysia – most plantations are established on already degraded land or plantations previously used to grow other crop species. Furthermore, Malaysian industry operates under a strict regulatory system that ensures that over half the country remains forested.
The study found that palm oil grown on existing plantations, “scores high on many environmental indicators. Oil palm requires 7–11 times less land area than soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower to produce the same amount of oil.”
The authors argue that “high-yielding bioenergy crops … can be managed for environmental benefits or losses, suggesting that the bioenergy sector would be better informed by incorporating management-based evaluations into classifications of bioenergy feedstocks.”
The study outlines a number of palm oil management strategies that reduce CO2 emissions: returning organic residues to the soil; the trapping of methane in processing mills; and the use of fertilizer to increase yields. These are technologies and management practices widely employed by world leaders in the Malaysian industry.
Campaigners portray palm oil as ‘bad’, but as emerging research demonstrates, “crop species themselves are neither exclusively positive nor negative, rather it is how they are managed for bioenergy that will determine their impacts.”
Commodities are not ‘inherently’ sustainable or unsustainable; sustainability depends on the processes and management used throughout the commodity’s production. In the case of Malaysia, good palm oil management is enshrined in national regulations and supported by industry.
Policy makers and NGOs should take a broader science-based view by including the management ‘swing potential’ in sustainability assessments. This is necessary if Malaysian palm oil-derived biofuel is to deliver on its great potential in reducing global CO2 emissions.