Blood & Palm Oil

11.16.15 6:00 AM ET

The World Runs on Palm Oil, and That’s Fueling Climate Change

Indonesia's forest fires, a result of slash-and-burn deforestation, release as much carbon dioxide every day as the entire U.S. does. It’s all for the sake of palm oil.

Each day in Indonesia, forest fires release as much carbon dioxide as the entire United States. The fires have been burning since July, thanks to a combination of slash-and-burn land clearing, flammable peat soil, and El Niño. And the worst part is, although your and my consumption habits are largely to blame, there’s almost nothing we can do about it.

Palm oil companies are largely to blame for this crisis. The larger companies usually don’t set the fires, but (not unlike the chocolate industry) they often buy palm oil from smaller landholders, who do. This makes it very hard to assign blame (there are over 200,000 small landholders in Indonesia) and hold the larger firms accountable, and it means the direct culprits are often impoverished small farmers trying to make ends meet.

Indirectly, the culprits are us. Palm oil manufacturers and their supply chains are the leading deforesters of tropical rainforests, and the primary threat to orangutans and other endangered wildlife.

So, want to boycott palm oil? Good luck. Palm oil is in everything. It’s the mostly widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and is in roughly half of all packaged products sold in Western supermarkets: lipstick, ramen noodles, detergent, chocolate, pizza—anything that could benefit from not melting, not sticking, or generally remaining just the right level of viscous.

Palm oil use has quadrupled in the past 20 years (PDF): it’s cheap, versatile, and comparatively easy to produce; 85 percent of the stuff is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where its environmental impact has been devastating.

And not just to orangutans, either. In addition to the cumulative impact of years of deforestation, habitat loss, and degradation of the environment, this year’s fires have already killed at least 50 people. In 1997, air pollution from forest fires was blamed in the deaths of 15,000. This year’s fires, it is estimated, could lead to the premature deaths of ten times as many.

There are some things you can do. The World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and other environmental groups have signed onto the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” initiative and its handy RSPO and “Green Palm” certification stickers. Many major palm oil producers are part of the RSPO, as are many small landholders. Roughly 20 percent of the world’s palm oil is now RSPO certified.

That’s a great start, but it’s still a small chunk of the whole. Moreover, your lipstick probably doesn’t have a Green Palm sticker on it, and you really have no way of knowing where the palm oil in your ice cream, bread, and margarine comes from. So unless you boycott the grocery store entirely and subsist on hemp seed and Dr. Bronners, you’re still probably part of the problem.

Plus, the RSPO is, itself, a partly corporate effort that occasionally smacks of greenwashing. Its members are responsible for about 39 percent of land where fires have occurred this year. The RSPO is exactly the kind of public-private partnership that’s needed for sustainable development, but it’s not exactly Greenpeace.

Then there’s the Indonesian government. In September, Indonesia arrested seven corporate executives, including one from an affiliate of the mammoth Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), in connection with the fires. Indonesia’s democratically elected president has vowed to end illegal burning.

And yet, as The Guardian reported, Indonesia’s constellation of corrupt politicians, gangsters, paramilitary organizations, and militias remain in effective control of much of the country (as the shocking documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence exposed) and still grease the palm-oily wheels of crony capitalism.

Interestingly, it’s not yet known whether all that carbon release will be a net positive or negative on global climate change. The reason is that sooty smoke reflects sunlight and shades the Earth, and sometimes that cooling effect can actually outweigh the greenhouse effect of the carbon dioxide. For example, after The Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, global warming actually paused for a year and a half, literally until the dust settled. The plume from that eruption was so large that it acted like a stylish sun visor over half the Earth’s surface.

Indeed, the “Pinatubo Effect” is the model for several “geoengineering” proposals to directly mitigate global warming by increasing particulate matter in the atmosphere.

It’s possible that the Indonesian fire plume will reach similar proportions, but we won’t know for years, if ever, thanks to the complex interactions of the global climate. (Remember last winter, when the most eco-cidal ignoramus in the Senate, James Inhofe, brought a snowball to Congress, while meanwhile 90 percent of Earth was experiencing record heat?)

In the meantime, the fires are destroying priceless rainforests, driving an already imperiled orangutan (and rhinocerous, and gibbon) population to the brink of disaster, and costing an estimated $47 billion to fight. Over 470,000 acres of forest have burned.

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More than anything, silent catastrophes like the one unfolding in Indonesia right now highlight the incoherence of much of contemporary environmental behavior, which focuses on “think globally, act locally” and personally “making a difference.” In fact, it just doesn’t matter if you carbon-offset that budget flight to Fort Lauderdale. What matters in fighting global climate disruption are megatrends like the global use of palm oil, which can only be addressed collectively, with top-down, government-NGO-and-business-coordinated action.

Palm oil is a systemic problem, and requires a systemic solution. Not each of us “making a difference.”

Likewise, it’s fun to focus on baddies like Monsanto. But have you even heard of Wilmar, Asian Agri, Cargill, GAR, and Musim Ma, which together comprise 80 percent of the Indonesian palm oil industry? Probably not—yet these firms hold our planet’s future in their large, corporate hands.

Already in Indonesia, palm trees have been planted amid the smoldering ruins of tropical rainforest. The few people paying attention to this catastrophe know exactly why it has unfolded. But if you’re wearing cosmetics, washing your clothes, or even holding a piece of pizza, the responsibility extends to you.