A new study on greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations has found there's more than 50 percent more CO2 emissions than previously thought – making them no better than gasoline.
University of Leicester researchers carried out the first comprehensive literature review of the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations on tropical peatland in Southeast Asia.
They found that many previous studies were based on limited data without appropriate recognition of uncertainties - and these studies have been used to formulate current European biofuel policies.
The team's best estimate ofthe scale of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations on peat amounts to 86 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare per year - way more than the 50 tonnes previously thought.
"These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels," says Ross Morrison of the University of Leicester Department of Geography.
"When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source."
The findings imply that, on average, biofuels in Europe will be as carbon intensive as gasoline. Bioethanol or biodiesel from waste cooking oil, on the other hand, could still offer carbon savings.
The outcome, clearly, has important implications for policies on climate and renewable energy sources.
"It is important that the full greenhouse gas emissions 'cost' of biofuel production is made clear to the consumer, who may otherwise be misled into thinking that all biofuels have a positive environmental impact," says Dr Sue Page, reader in physical geography at the university.
"In addition to the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil palm plantations on tropical peatlands, these agro-systems have also been implicated in loss of primary rainforest and associated biodiversity, including rare and endangered species such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger."