Leading article: Planting the seeds of environmental disaster

The expansion of oil palm cultivation is driving global warming

Share
Related Topics

The typical image used to represent the process of global warming is a power station, belching out black smoke. But an equally valid image would be an oil palm sitting serenely under a tropical sky. Rainforests are being cleared across south-east Asia, West Africa and South America to make way for palm oil plantations, which produce the world's cheapest vegetable oil. Yet deforestation is one of the greatest drivers of climate change. The destruction of the planet's rainforests is responsible for 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, as hardwood trees that have locked up carbon for decades are felled and burned.

Tropical deforestation might feel like something that is remote from our daily lives in Britain. But the reality is that the consumer choices millions of us make every day are contributing to the destruction of these forests. Half of all packaged food products sold by our supermarkets are made with tropical palm oil.

But this is not an exclusively British phenomenon. Food manufacturers across the world are helping to drive demand for palm oil. And in so doing they (and we) are adding to the forces of destruction assailing our precious, carbon-storing rainforests.

Palm oil cultivation does not need to involve such rampant destruction. If planted on marginal land, its environmental impact can be minimal. And many Western companies signed up three years ago to a commitment to use Asian palm oil from sustainable plantations, rather than the variety produced by rainforest clearance. But as we reveal today, their record in following through on these commitments has been miserable. Relatively few have made serious efforts to ensure that their palm oil is sustainably sourced. Although British manufacturers have generally been better than those in the rest of Europe, their achievement is nothing to boast of. The food industry as a whole has failed to make a decisive shift to sustainable palm oil.

Failure threatens on other fronts too. As we reported this week, the fate of a global deforestation treaty that will be presented to international delegates at the Copenhagen climate change summit in December is hanging in the balance. As presently framed, this treaty would grant Western subsidies to poor nations that cut down virgin rainforests and replace them with palm oil plantations. This is the opposite of what is required. Subsidies from rich countries to encourage developing nations to preserve their rainforests are undoubtedly needed. They will encourage sustainable economic growth in some of the poorest nations in the world while protecting a common international environmental resource. But there can be no question of subsidising palm oil plantations.

If this treaty is ratified in its present form it would be a disaster. Its effect would be to encourage the destruction of rainforests and accelerate the catastrophic release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that such felling would entail. Responsible governments need to ensure this treaty is modified before it reaches Copenhagen. But relying on high politics is not enough. Consumer pressure is also needed. At the moment, many food manufacturers are paying little more than lip service to their environmental commitments. Shoppers in the rich world should increase the pressure on such firms by boycotting products made with unsustainable palm oil.

The threat of environmental disaster that hangs over us comes in many shapes; and few loom larger than the shape of the oil palm.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Full Time and Part Time Digital Designer - North Kent

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful web design/deve...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A man enjoys the  

If you really want to legalise cannabis, then why on earth would you go and get high in a park?

Peter Reynolds
 

No wonder 1,000 women a year are getting abortions because of extreme morning sickness. When I was suffering, my doctor said it would 'cure' me

Jo Crosby
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders