In recent years, palm oil production has come under fire from environmentalists concerned about the deforestation of land in the tropics to make way for new palm plantations. Now there is a new reason to be concerned about palm oil's environmental impact, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.
An analysis published Feb. 26 in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that the wastewater produced during the processing of palm oil is a significant source of heat-trapping methane in the atmosphere. But the researchers also present a possible solution: capturing the methane and using it as a renewable energy source.
The methane bubbling up from a single palm oil wastewater lagoon during a year is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 passenger vehicles in the United States, the analysis found. This year, global methane emissions from palm oil wastewater are expected to equal 30 percent of all fossil fuel emissions from Indonesia, where widespread deforestation for palm oil production has endangered orangutans.
"This is a largely overlooked dimension of palm oil's environmental problems," said lead author Philip Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). "The industry has become a poster child for agriculture's downsides, but capturing wastewater methane leaks for energy would be a step in the right direction."
The global demand for palm oil has spiked in recent years as processed food manufacturers have sought an alternative to trans fats.
For now, the carbon footprint of cutting down forests to make way for palm plantations dwarfs the greenhouse gases coming from the wastewater lagoons. But while deforestation is expected to slow as the focus shifts to more intensive agriculture on existing plantations, the emissions from wastewater lagoons will continue unabated as long as palm oil is produced, the researchers said.
|Contact: Philip Taylor|
University of Colorado at Boulder