Growing oil palm for biofuels can't save our climate

Jan 31, 2013

(Phys.org)—Growing oil palm to make 'green' biofuels in the tropics could be accelerating the effects of climate change, say scientists.

Researchers from Bangor University found the creation of are releasing prehistoric sources of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

The findings throw into doubt hopes that biofuels grown in the tropics could help cut .

Working as part of an international team, the north Wales scientists looked at how the of peat-swamps in Malaysia, to make way for oil , is releasing carbon which has been locked away for thousands of years.

It is feared this carbon will be attacked by microbes and produce the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. The Bangor researchers say the ancient carbon comes from deep in the soil, which as the effects of deforestation take hold, breaks down and dissolves into the nearby watercourses.

When describing their work which appears in Nature, Prof Chris Freeman commented: ""We first noticed that the ditches draining areas converted to palm oil plantations were loaded with unusually high levels of dissolved carbon back in 1995, but it was not until my researcher Dr Tim Jones took samples to measure the age of that carbon that we realised we were onto something important". Dr Jones added "We were amazed to discover that the samples from Malaysian oil palm plantations contained the oldest soil-derived dissolved organic carbon ever recorded."

The Bangor University researchers measured the water from channels in palm oil plantations in the Malaysian peninsular which were originally Peatland Swamp Forest. There are approximately 28,000 km2 of industrial plantations in , Sumatra and Borneo with even more planned, making them a major contributor to peatswamp deforestation in the region. Prof Freeman commented; "Our results are yet another reminder that when we disturb intact peatswamps and convert them to industrial plantations, we risk adding to the very problem that we are trying to solve"

Prof Freeman added: "We have known for some time that in South East Asia, oil palm plantations were a major threat to biodiversity, including the habitat for orang-utans, and that the drainage could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide during the fires seen there in recent years. But this discovery of a "hidden" new source of problems in the waters draining these peatlands is a reminder that these fragile ecosystems really are in need of conservation."

Such is the necessity to learn more about the role of tropical peatlands on our climate Prof Freeman is establishing a unique postgraduate degree on wetlands.

The world-renowned scientist hopes Bangor University's new Wetland Science and Conservation MSc will ensure research continues on the best ways to protect and manage these special habitats.

'Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial fluxes' is published in Nature on 31 January 2013.

Explore further: Tourists evacuated amid Iceland volcano concerns

More information: 'Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes' is published in Nature on 31 January 2013. www.nature.com/nature/journal/… ull/nature11818.html

Related Stories

Oil palm surging source of greenhouse gas emissions

Apr 26, 2012

Continued expansion of industrial-scale oil palm plantations on the island of Borneo will become a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 unless strong forest and peatland protections are enacted and enforced, ...

Alarm over fate of world's orangutans

Mar 26, 2007

A U.N. report details grave danger to the world's population of orangutans due to a booming palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Recommended for you

NASA image: Signs of deforestation in Brazil

18 hours ago

Multiple fires are visible in in this image of the Para and Mato Grosso states of Brazil. Many of these were most likely intentionally set in order to deforest the land. Deforestation is the removal of a ...

Sunblock poses potential hazard to sea life

18 hours ago

The sweet and salty aroma of sunscreen and seawater signals a relaxing trip to the shore. But scientists are now reporting that the idyllic beach vacation comes with an environmental hitch. When certain sunblock ...

Is falling recycling rate due to 'green fatigue'?

19 hours ago

It's been suggested that a recent fall in recycling rates is due to green fatigue, caused by the confusing number of recycling bins presented to householders for different materials. Recycling rates woul ...

Study to inform Maryland decision on "fracking"

22 hours ago

The Maryland Department of Environment and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released on August 18, 2014, a report by the University of Maryland School of Public Health, which assesses the potential ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

alfie_null
not rated yet Feb 01, 2013
In a relative sense, producing these sorts of studies is the easy part. Figuring out an effective remediation is the real challenge.