Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation

Palm oil is used in thousands of products that many people use every day, from baked goods and ice cream to household cleaning products and shampoo—and can even be found in fuel tanks.

Unfortunately, palm oil is responsible for large-scale forest conversion in the tropics and extensive carbon emissions, contributing to global warming. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists is calling on companies that use major deforestation drivers such as palm oil to adopt strong deforestation-free and peat-free sourcing policies.

Our Palm Oil Scorecard evaluates many of the largest companies in packaged food, personal care and fast food for their commitments to deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil.

Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Palm oil and global warming

Indonesia and Malaysia, nations with large tropical forests, are the dominant producers of palm oil on the world market today. Their forests are being cleared to make room for new palm oil plantations.

When these forests are lost, carbon is released into the atmosphere, driving global warming. The Sumatran orangutan, elephant, and tiger, all of which are critically endangered, as well the endangered Bornean orangutans and pygmy elephants, are being driven toward extinction as their habitat is converted into massive oil palm plantations.

Furthermore, considerable forested areas of Indonesia and Malaysia are on tropical peat soils. Because of the enormous amount of carbon stored in these soils, clearing and draining swampy peatlands leads to heat-trapping emissions for many years, contributing dramatically to global warming.

As global demand for palm oil continues to increase, tropical forests across Southeast Asia, and increasingly Africa and Latin America, are at risk for conversion into large-scale palm oil plantations.

Learn more by reading our Palm Oil Fact Sheet and the palm oil section of our web feature, What’s Driving Deforestation?

Palm oil solutions

Today, thanks in part to the hard work of environmental groups and concerned consumers, many corporations are becoming aware of the negative environmental impacts of palm oil—and many companies are adopting palm oil policies. However, not all solutions are strong enough.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed in 2004, is the major certification body for palm oil. The RSPO today has about 1000 members, including oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, and NGOs working on environmental, social, and development issues.

Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Though the RSPO provides criteria for “certified sustainable palm oil” (CSPO) and offers that certification, their standards do not yet represent the best science regarding forest conservation and carbon emissions. Certified sustainable palm oil is not guaranteed to be deforestation-free, nor is the destruction of peatlands banned.  

In early 2013, more than 200 scientists called on the RSPO to adopt stronger standards to address these problems, but the RSPO failed to make these needed changes.

While purchasing certified sustainable palm oil is a good first step, it does not address all the negative environmental impacts associated with the production of palm oil. There are steps palm oil producers can take to eliminate these impacts: palm oil can be grown on degraded land instead of forested land, and on mineral soils instead of peat soils. In addition, existing palm oil plantations can increase crop yields to reduce the need for new plantation expansion.

Join UCS and call for deforestation-free commodities

You can join the Union of Concerned Scientists in calling on companies to adopt strong sourcing policies for palm oil and the other major drivers of deforestation—and to work with their suppliers to increase standards or buy from producers who are willing to commit to deforestation-free and peat-free policies. Take action now!