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What is the environmental impact of using palm oil?

Palm oil is used in many food and cosmetic products and has been championed as a source of green sustainable fuel. It is a huge part of the export revenue for countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. However, there is significant concern worldwide about its sustainable credentials.

The massive expansion of oil palm over tropical forest and bog land has had significant impacts both on large species such as orangutans as well as countless other species of tropical plants, invertebrates, birds, mammals and reptiles by destroying large tracts of natural habitat. The growth of the plantation economy also impacts heavily on local communities which traditionally relied on forest resources and who do not necessarily benefit from industrial government-driven schemes.

Moreover, its cradle-to-grave credential as a ‘green’ fuel is very questionable, and many researchers believe that the standing forest which the plantations replace are important carbon sinks, so that overall – given the high production, processing and transport costs of the oil – retaining the forest and continuing to use fossil fuel might be more effective in reducing carbon emissions, at least in the short-term anyway.

Dr Robert Bloomfield, IYB-UK/Natural History Museum, London