Reducing GHG emission a priority for palm oil industry

IN the growing concern over the climate crisis, a key parameter closely watched is the emission of greenhouse gases that drive global warming, the single most important factor fueling climate change. The principal gas is carbon dioxide. But there are other gases which are multiple times more potent in their global warming potential.

Methane is another common GHG. It is more potent than carbon dioxide, by at least 20 times. Recent Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings have highlighted the need to deal with methane emission in climate mitigation actions.

The oil and gas industry are the biggest source of methane leakages. But increasingly the livestock industry has also come under the spotlight as a significant source.

It has been reported in many studies that agriculture accounts for about one-third of world GHG emissions. Methane is one. But the other major contributor is nitrous oxide which comes from the extensive use of chemical fertilisers. Experts say the global warming potential of nitrous oxide can be almost 2,000 times more than carbon dioxide.

This revelation explains why there is strong pressure for agriculture to shift away from chemical fertilisers. But the problem is the absence of viable alternatives to support the productivity of crops. High crop yield is a key prerequisite of sound agricultural economics.

Thus far, the approach has been to fall back on options which only reduce the use of chemical fertilisers. Not a complete shift away. Such measures include crop rotation, deployment of nitrogen fixing cover crops and the incorporation of recycled nutrients from agricultural wastes.

Though it is widely recognised that oil palm is an efficient sequester of carbon dioxide, there is concern that the processes involved in the cultivation and processing of the crop may emit more GHGs than what it can sequester. Emission is in fact the sticking point in the squabble with the EU on her trade restrictive policies for palm biodiesel.

The palm oil industry has yet to provide convincing data on emission to counter the EU claims. Earlier, the claim was that much of the oil palm was planted on deforested land. However, as new data on deforestation emerge, which shows that the oil palm in Malaysia is not grown on deforested areas, that claim is now muted.

Now the attention has turned to the actual process of growing and processing of the oil palm crop. In the growing stage, there is concern over the emission of nitrous oxide coming from the chemical fertilisers used.

The practice by some plantations to deploy empty fruit bunches (EFBs) on their holdings to replace some amount of the chemical fertilisers is both for economic reasons and for GHG emission reduction from nitrous oxide.

The organic carbon content of the EFB also helps replenish the soil carbon. What is not completely clear is the potential methane emission from the rotting EFBs in the field. Many are asking whether there is a better way to harness the carbon and nutrients in the EFBs and avoid the unnecessary release of methane into the atmosphere. This deserves some study.

The other practice of EFB disposal is more worrying. This has to do with dumping the EFBs at landfills. By disposing EFBs at landfills it does not only contribute to methane emission, but the leachates can pollute water streams and bring down river quality.

Much of the water supply breakdown in recent times has been contributed by water pollution upstream of water intake points. Again, the right data must be obtained to get a clearer picture of the situation. This is where the recent effort of the government to better structure the biomass industry should be lauded.

Many have endorsed the move to relaunch the biomass action plans now placed under the auspices of the Plantation and Commodities Ministry. Since EFB forms the largest chunk of the oil palm waste biomass, it is only proper that attention should focus on the EFBs.

Through better management of the EFBs, the country will not only benefit from the potential economic value, but the palm oil industry stands to benefit image wise from the reduced GHG emission. Implementing such plans is the big challenge.

The writer is professor at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy, UCSI University

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