Palm oil is driving deforestation—with serious consequences for both climate and biodiversity.
We need tropical forests
Tropical forests play a crucial role in stabilizing the earth's climate, storing vastly more carbon dioxide (CO2) than forests in the world's temperate regions. A 2011 study estimated total carbon stored by the earth's tropical forests at 271 billion tons—that's about 7 times the total carbon emissions from fossil fuel use in the year 2008.
In addition, tropical forests play host to millions of species, comprising about two-thirds of the earth's terrestrial biodiversity.
But tropical forests are being cut down for palm oil...
Palm oil acreage worldwide increased from 15 million acres in 1990 to more than 46 million acres in 2014. Much of this new palm oil acreage is coming at the expense of tropical forests.
When tropical forests are cut down for palm oil, large amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. From 2001 to 2010, land-use carbon emissions from palm oil in Indonesia averaged 216 to 268 million tons—that's equivalent to the emissions from 45 to 55 million cars, 56 to 70 coal-fired power plants, or the annual energy use from 20 to 25 million homes.
Palm oil conversion also takes a heavy toll on tropical forest biodiversity: only 15 percent of species that inhabit tropical forests are also found on palm oil plantations. Species currently at risk from palm oil conversion include the Sumatran orangutan, elephant, and tiger, all of which are critically endangered, as well as the endangered Bornean orangutan and pygmy elephant.
...and demand for palm oil continues to rise.
Between 1990 and 2013, global production of palm oil more than quadrupled, rising from 14.5 million tons to 67.3 million tons.
This skyrocketing demand is driven by the use of palm oil as an ingredient in a broad range of common consumer products, including fast foods, baked goods, personal care and cleaning products.
Palm oil is increasingly popular with manufacturers for several reasons—among other things, it's low in trans fats and relatively inexpensive compared to other vegetable oils.
We can fix this
Palm oil can be grown without destroying tropical forests or our climate. Several companies have made public commitments to sustainable palm oil. But more action is needed now to save tropical forests.
The information and data presented in this infographic are based largely on the UCS fact sheet, Palm Oil and Global Warming.
For more information, including additional data sources, please see the infographic data sources (PDF).
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Infographic design by Graphicacy.