Palm oil, largely used in the manufacture of food products is becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient in bio-diesel and power-station fuel, a use which has massive potential to increase global demand for this already highly contested resource. Whilst the economic benefits are huge to the developing countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, the associated environmental and social impacts are major concerns, as large scale rainforest destruction, depleting orang-utan populations and loss of local land rights and community resources are already serious threats.
Recognising the high and increasing value of their palm oil resources, Malaysia is to host their second International Conference on Palm Oil Biomass (ICOPB) on the third of August this year in the capital, Kuala Lumpa. The first ICOPB was held in August 2008 and was attended by delegates from more than 17 countries worldwide. Whereas sustainability and renewable materials are considerations, the ICOPB conferences focus on the commercialization, business opportunities and developments for the palm oil industry, the latest findings and potentials for improvements to technologies and the experiences and successes of current business ventures. ICOPB 2008 considered the role of palm oil biomass in sustainable management in line with the Kyoto Protocol and no doubt, there will be expectations for ICOPB 2010 to make environmental concerns a firm feature in discussions but there are fears that even if the demand for palm oil as a biofuel is directed at sustainably certified sources, the new demand is likely to spur much of the current global demand elsewhere towards destructive plantation development.
The boom in renewable fuel sources has fuelled massive increases in palm oil production. Developing and developed countries across the globe have been quick to start adopting new alternatives to oil and imports of palm oil could reach unprecedented levels if desired levels of production and trade proceed; in the UK the conversion of just one oil fired power station to palm oil could alone double UK imports. The international demand for palm oil for use in bio-diesel has already spurred Indonesia and Malayasia to massively increase the size and number of plantations; by 2020 Indonesia’s oil palm plantations are projected to triple in size to 16.5 million hectares.
Despite the ‘green labelling’ of renewable energy sources, many environmental groups are opposed to adopting palm oil as an alternative to fossil fuel consumption; Friends of the Earth does not support the use in the UK of palm oil as a biofuel for electricity production, except where recycled oil is used. As the world continues to make the move towards new energy sources, it is vital that consumers and decision makers who are influential in creating demand make both environmentally and socially sustainable choices, as well as ensuring that developing nations are not denied the opportunities to progress.