Fires are raging across the 3,000 mile length of Indonesia, destroying tens of thousands of acres of forest. More than 127,000 forest fires have been detected so far this year, which is expected to be the worst on record. Visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 yards by noxious orange haze. There have been more than 500,000 cases of acute respiratory illness and at least 19 deaths. To say Indonesia is in crisis would be an understatement.
By Indonesian government estimates, the costs of this year’s fires could exceed US$30 billion. El Niño has made the fires so much worse that surgical masks will do almost nothing to protect the affected inhabitants of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines as toxic smog spreads further and further throughout Southeast Asia. Children are being prepared for evacuation on warships.
Production of palm oil — the most widely used vegetable oil in the world — and a strong El Niño have converged into a perfect storm to amplify the effects of Indonesia’s dry season. Indonesia produces half of the world’s palm oil, which has led to illegal burning to clear land and plant African oil palm trees. The burning often devastates critical rainforest habitats for animals including orangutans, clouded leopards, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran tiger. Deforestation typically accounts for about 60 percent of Indonesia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
The severe emissions are in part due to the destruction of peatlands; peat stores some of the highest quantities of carbon and emits methane. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), burning peatlands can result in up to 200 times more damage to the global climate than regular similar fires and the smog is especially toxic.
The fires have tripled Indonesia’s entire annual emissions, moving it from being the world’s sixth-largest emitter to the fourth-largest in just six weeks. WRI reported that there were 38 days in September and October when the daily greenhouse gas emissions created by the Indonesian fires exceeded those created by the entire U.S. economy.
WRI recommends that governments adopt financial incentives for commodity growers, focus on technical and mapping support for land use management, and improve transparency in the concession of land use licenses to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.
Consumer demand has prompted action from the consumer goods industry, which relies heavily on palm oil for everything from food and beverage to cosmetics – individual brand efforts include zero-deforestation commitments from companies including Mars, Unilever and P&G, and the establishment of industry-wide Sourcing Guidelines earlier this year. Meanwhile, laggards continue to feel the pressure from environmental organizations — Starbucks received a dismal 10 out of 100 on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) most recent Palm Oil Scorecard; and PepsiCo’s continued iterations of a responsible palm oil plan have been the brunt of ongoing disapproval from UCS, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network (RAN). PepsiCo quietly released its latest palm oil action plan on Friday, which according to RAN still needs work.
“Rainforest Action Network is disappointed that PepsiCo continues to fail to take responsibility for the impact of its products sold globally,” Gemma Tillack, Agribusiness Campaign Director for RAN, said in a statement released yesterday. “PepsiCo has a huge role to play in the highly problematic global production of Conflict Palm Oil, but will continue to accept ‘business as usual’ operations from its suppliers, including Indofood (the sole maker of PepsiCo branded products in Indonesia and the country’s third-largest private palm oil company, with a track record of labor rights violations and deforestation).”
Consumer goods giants have the power to motivate palm oil producers to change their ways; PepsiCo alone sources one percent of the world’s palm oil, which gives it significant leverage. But vague, long-term commitments — such as PepsiCo’s pledge to source certified palm oil by 2020 — fall far short of what’s needed to prevent disasters such as the fires in Indonesia from happening again.