The Oil Palm

Sustainability in a Global Context: Falling Global Deforestation and GHG Emissions

A recent study to assess the potential carbon emissions from palm oil in Indonesian Borneo, known as Kalimantan, has no bearing on the sustainability of Malaysian palm oil industry. Indonesia and Malaysia may share some geographical and cultural similarities. Both are located in South-East Asia, and both are major palm oil producing countries. Both face challenges to achieving national development, and both seek to improve living standards for citizens.

But Malaysia and Indonesia operate differently, with different political institutions, environmental regulations, and industry participants. As a noted orang-utan expert recently highlighted, in some areas the Indonesia-Malaysian border marks a significant environmental divide.

In Malaysia, the industry works with authorities, civil society, and smallholders to ensure environmental outputs are maintained. The Malaysian industry should not be held accountable for practices in other national jurisdictions, no matter where they are located.

At the same time Malaysia does not shy away from addressing complex environmental issues through global initiatives. Malaysian efforts have contributed to decreasing rates of global deforestation. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) assessed the net change in global forest area to find that deforestation over the last decade decreased by approximately 37% from the previous decade. Deforestation rates in Indonesia dropped by around one-third between 2005 and 2010.  In absolute terms, deforestation in Malaysia is about one-eighth of that in Indonesia.

At the same time, potential carbon emissions from deforestation have been downsized. Studies by Winrock International have concluded that emissions from tropical deforestation may account for as little as 7 per cent of total global anthropogenic emissions – maybe even less. This is under half the value that some NGOs attribute to deforestation.

Malaysian industry operates responsibly and sustainably. Given the falling rates of deforestation and downscaling of carbon emissions from deforestation, the industry should be recognized for its role in sustainable development. Yet some campaigners have leveled accusations against the Malaysian palm oil industry based on studies that assess industries outside of the country.

The Malaysian palm oil industry in particular has been a crucial driver of growth and development for the region. These accusations ignore the sustainable and productive land and environmental management practices that have helped alleviate poverty – and the achievements made in Malaysia to establish a global leader in sustainable agriculture production.