On top of the fact that palm oil production — the biggest driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa and South America — is responsible for the rampant release of carbon emissions, the destruction of vital habitats for endangered species such as orangutans and the Sumatran tiger, and the production of methane-rich wastewater, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) links unsustainable palm oil production practices with significant air pollution in Southeast Asia in the form of devastating haze.
Clearing the Air: Palm Oil, Peat Destruction, and Air Pollution outlines how palm oil production practices, including deforestation, landscape fires and draining peatlands, contribute to toxic air pollution and haze, which in turn cause severe health and economic ramifications.
“Now that palm oil is a common ingredient in everything from muffins to moisturizers, the demand for palm oil is increasing. In the scramble to meet demand, some oil palm plantations are using practices that contribute to climate change, endanger human health and weaken the economy,” said Lael Goodman, analyst for the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and author of the report. “Ultimately, these unsustainable practices are making a lot of people sick.”
Small fires are often intentionally set to clear vegetation and debris from agricultural fields and peatlands, areas of carbon-rich, decayed vegetation, the report says. Fires are 30 to 98 percent cheaper than mechanical techniques, but even small fires can easily burn out of control and become large-scale landscape fires.
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As land grows scarce, growers are increasingly cultivating palm oil on peatlands. These swampy soils have high water tables and store significant amounts of carbon. To develop peatlands, the land must be drained, releasing the carbon and creating a number of adverse climate effects. Once dried out the peat becomes highly flammable; fires set on peatland can burn on the surface and underground for weeks months or even years. Once a sub-surface fire is ignited, the fire can burn horizontally – at times without burning the surface.
“When summer arrives in North America, we prepare for droughts and heat waves. But for many in Southeast Asia, summer is heralded by thick clouds of toxic air that result from landscape fires. This haze blankets communities,” said Goodman. “And once it sets in, some area residents are forced to cope with illness and lost wages.”
Landscape fires, including peat fires, emit smoke and haze into the air, creating abysmal air quality that endangers local populations. The resulting haze causes health problems ranging from skin and eye irritation, to decreased lung function and respiratory issues to cancer and even death. All told, exposure to particulate matter from these fires claims 110,000 lives in Southeast Asia each year.
Not only does treating the sick cost money, but the haze can be so severe that workplaces temporarily close, results in lost wages for the company and its workers. The haze also affects transportation, resulting in cancelled flights and forfeited profits from tourism by limiting travel in Southeast Asia. In addition, national and local governments have to pay firefighters, among other costs, when fires get out of control.
During the worst haze event in recent history, fires started in Indonesia in 1997 produced haze that spread into Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines and even Thailand. Between 60 and 80 percent of the haze from this event was the result of peatland fires. The haze lasted for several weeks, closing businesses and schools, and affecting the health of millions of people. In fact, the health care costs in Indonesia alone are estimated at $1.8 billion. Tourism also suffered, with losses amounting to almost $400 million in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In terms of lost productivity, estimated at 2.5 million workdays in Indonesia were lost in just three months.
“While the problems associated with landscape fires are well established, we are seeing that the palm oil industry’s involvement in landscape fire is a big part of the problem,” said Goodman. “And the best solution is multinational companies to demand a product that produced without harming the environment or the surrounding populations.”
While a wave of multinational companies has made recent commitments to sustainable palm oil, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil recently suspended or terminated the membership of dozens of companies that were not meeting minimum reporting standards.