Found in everything from shampoo to donuts, palm oil is now the most common vegetable oil in the world—and also one of the world's leading deforestation drivers.
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, which thrives in humid climates. The large majority of palm oil production occurs in just two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, where huge swaths of tropical forests and peatlands (carbon-rich swamps) are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, releasing carbon into the atmosphere to drive global warming while shrinking habitats for a multitude of endangered species.
Palm oil's impacts
The areas being cleared for palm oil are particularly rich in carbon. Indonesian forests store even more carbon per hectare than the Brazilian Amazon thanks to their carbon-rich soil; palm cultivation there was responsible for 2 to 9 percent of worldwide emissions from tropical land use between 2000 and 2010. In Malaysia, the carbon stock of tropical forests can range up to 99 million kilograms of carbon per square mile. That's equivalent to the emissions from driving an average car from New York to San Francisco and back 76 times.
One huge source of global warming emissions associated with palm oil is the draining and burning of the carbon-rich swamps known as peatlands. Peatlands can hold up to 18 to 28 times as much carbon as the forests above them; when they are drained and burned, both carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere—and unless the water table is restored, peatlands continue to decay and release global warming emissions for decades.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the burning of peatlands releases a dangerous haze into the air, resulting in severe health impacts and significant economic losses. Each year, more than 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia can be attributed to particulate matter exposure from landscape fires, many of which are peat fires.
Beyond its global warming and human health impacts, palm oil production also takes a toll on biodiversity and human rights. Only about 15 percent of native animal species can survive the transition from primary forest to plantation. Among the species vulnerable to palm oil expansion are orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants. Furthermore, palm oil growers have also been accused of using forced labor, seizing land from local populations, and other human rights abuses.