By Johannes Pirker and Aline Mosnier, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Research Program
In the late 2000s, Palm oil became a major target of environmental NGO’s working to save tropical forests. Bleak images of recently cleared forest sites left no doubt about the harmful impact of the commodity which today is omnipresent in our food—palm oil today is used in many everyday products such as chocolate bars, shampoo, and margarine. Campaigning against palm oil is a safe bet for NGO’s; it has become the North Korea among the vegetable oils.
The facts are clear: oil palm cultivation has expanded tremendously in recent years. Indonesia and Malaysia were and continue to be the epicenter of this expansion. In these two countries, new plantations have led to at least 3.7 million hectares of forest loss during the last 20 years, an area bigger than Belgium. This deforestation threatens not only animal and plant species, but expansion of palm oil plantations is increasingly occurring into carbon-rich peat soils, leading to the release of tremendous amounts of climate-warming CO2 into the atmosphere.
Palm oil mill of CDC in the South-West province in Cameroon, taken by Aline Soterroni, a 2010 IIASA YSSP participant and collaborator on the REDD-PAC project. Photo Credit: Aline Soterroni
On the other hand, even environmental NGOs cannot deny that the palm-oil boom has brought major benefits to the economies of producer countries. In Indonesia, the sector is estimated to employ on average 0.4 persons per hectare – at least 3.2 million jobs in a country where about 30 million people live in poverty. Unskilled slave labor? Well, no. Almost half of the plantations in the country are owned and managed by smallholders. In Thailand the share is as high as three quarters of the total plantation area.
Demand for palm oil remains high and there is now evidence that the palm oil boom might spill over to Central and Western Africa, where about 800,000 hectares of plantation concession have been granted to companies in recent years. Latin American countries too see the opportunity to benefit from the boom, such as Brazil, which has recently included oil palm in its reforestation plans, bolstered by a generous subsidy scheme for smallholders. So is the way inevitably paved for the palm oil industry to embark on a new round of forest-destroying plantation expansion?
Land use planning as a way forward
In many countries land is available – mainly degraded forests and grassland – to satisfy the future demand for palm oil in a less damaging way. Earmarking the right sites for palm plantations requires a good deal of capacity and knowledge by local authorities about where natural conditions are suitable for oil palm, which environmental and social safeguards need to be considered and at which place – a land use planning process.
The map above shows where palm oil production is possible on the globe when taking into account climate, soil, and topography features.
The first step toward more sustainable oil production is a map indicating where bio-physical conditions are suitable for oil palm cultivation. To that end, we constructed a global bio-physical suitability map, building on climate, soil and topography data at the resolution of 1 km. The map reveals that in fact the Amazon basin – the better part of it is located in Brazil – harbors by far the biggest stretch of suitable land, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia.
IIASA supports the MOABI platform, a collaborative mapping initiative that aims to increase transparency and accountability on resource issues in DRC. Our oil palm suitability map will help to inform this process by providing insight to the sustainability of the expected expansion of oil palm in DRC in the coming years.
This map shows areas that are potentially suitable for oil palm cultivation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The map was developed from our data, and made interactive and zoomable by our partners the Moabi Project.
Biophysical suitability is not all
However, if and where plantations will start to appear will depend on many factors, most of which are economic :
- Availability, productivity and costs of land and labor
- The institutional set-up and support for the sector
- Accessibility to refinery plants and markets is a key determinant for oil palm plantations profitability
In order to address these issues, an economic model such as IIASA’s Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) model can be deployed to gain insights in the likely development of the sector, help land use planning and explicitly show the trade-off between economic development and biodiversity protection.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
This post was originally published on the recharge.green blog. IIASA is a partner in the new project, which focuses on the potential for renewable energy in the Alps.
When I think of an alpine forest, I think of the towering cedar trees that blanket the Cascade mountains near my native Seattle, with trunks so broad you can’t reach your arms around them. I think of the shadowy quiet that envelops me as I wander through a mountain forest in my new home in Austria. I think of the scent of pine needles and the bounce of my feet on a trail softened by forest litter. The value of a mature forest to people like me who love the outdoors—its recreational value—is impossible to put into numbers.
We can, however, calculate the effects of different styles of forest management on more quantifiable criteria. We can determine how much carbon dioxide is taken up from the atmosphere and stored by long-growing forests. And we can estimate how much bioenergy we can sustainably produce by managing forests for biomass harvesting.
This is exactly what IIASA scientists have done for their first efforts in the recharge.green project. IIASA’s role in the project is to use our modeling expertise to explore the various possibilities for renewable energy expansion in the Alps. We are also looking at the tradeoffs and benefits of the different possible scenarios and ecosystem services (ESS). As a first step, researchers Florian Kraxner, Sylvain Leduc , Sabine Fuss (now with MCC Berlin), Nicklas Forsell, and Georg Kindermann used the IIASA BeWhere and Global Forest (G4M) models look at the tradeoffs between bioenergy production or carbon storage in alpine forests.
These graphs show the first results for recharge.green from IIASA’s BeWhere and G4M models, optimizing the location of bioenergy plants to maximize either carbon sequestration (top) or bioenergy production (bottom). The gradiant of green colors shows the amount of carbon storage over the landscape, while the red boxes (and according gradient in red) show the harvesting intensity in different harvesting areas.
“Managing forests optimally for bioenergy requires more intensive management,” says Kraxner. That means shorter rotations where trees are cut more often. Such a forest is made up of smaller trees that may look more like “close-to-nature plantations” than an old-growth forest. In contrast, managing forests for carbon storage means letting the trees grow older, also good for biodiversity and environmental preservation.
In their analysis, Kraxner and the team compared two management strategies: restricting bioenergy production to a small land area, and managing it intensively, or spreading bioenergy over a large land area but managing less intensively over the whole area. They found that the same amount of bioenergy could be produced by managing a small amount of land area intensively for bioenergy production. This more intensive management on a small area of land would free up a larger land area for preservation and protection or other special dedication to ecosystem services.
“Both methods are sustainable,” says Kraxner, “but the optics are different. Intensification can be a good solution to provide renewable energy and at the same time preserve biodiversity and the more intangible values of mature forests.”
What do you think? What should our priorities be in managing Alpine forests?
Pheakkdey Nguon, participant in IIASA’s 2012 Young Scientists Summer Program, and IIASA Annual Fund recipient, has won an IPCC reserach fellowship to fund his research on REDD+ in Cambodia. In this interview he discusses his research plans, the award, and his experience at IIASA.
Pheakkdey Nguon at the awards ceremony for the IPCC research fellowship on 30 September, 2013.
Nexus: Please tell us about the research that you will be working on under this grant: What is the major question that you’re studying?
Pheakkdey Nguon: The main objective of my dissertation research is to better understand how governance systems organize and distribute knowledge on the UN’s REDD+ Program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) across different groups of stakeholders with conflicting interests, and the resulting impacts of such systems on forests and people in Cambodia. I am basically asking to what extent the different groups of stakeholders in Cambodia have considered REDD+ as salient, credible and/or legitimate for addressing deforestation, forest degradation and sustainable livelihood development.
How will you address this question?
Theoretically, I am drawing from sustainability science and political economy of institutions and decisions literature to reveal ways in which perceptions, institutional locations, and contextual differences affect patterns of stakeholders’ engagement in REDD+, a complex environmental governance project that spans multiple levels of implementation and involve various groups of stakeholders. Methodologically, I am using qualitative methods such as key informant interviews (up to 150 interviews), observations of REDD+ policy processes (up to 70 observations), and extended archival research (e.g. government reports, newspapers, policy briefs, feasibility studies) to answer my question.
The interviews offer a first-hand account of the criteria that different group of stakeholders use and their justifications for using those criteria to assess REDD+ projects within their project areas and in Cambodia. Observations of REDD+ policy processes (e.g. meetings, workshops, consultations) provide information on the participation and engagement of different groups of stakeholders in the production, examination and dissemination of knowledge on REDD+ within the three project sites and in Cambodia. Finally, archival research is conducted for two main reasons: (1) to validate, compare, and contextualize information gathered through interviews and policy observations; and (2) to add to the study information that would not be appropriate or feasible to collect through interviews or observations, either because of the political sensitivities of the topics or time constraints.
Why are you interested in this area?
Academic and policy-oriented literature on REDD+ has been prolific within the last decade. Its central focus has been on addressing the technical issues – defined largely by the scientific and policy communities – that will improve the design and implementation of REDD+ so that its outcomes achieve the goals of effectiveness, efficiency and equity (the so-called “3Es” criteria). Whether these “3Es” criteria – or the underlying logic of REDD+ in general – are as relevant for the different groups of stakeholders in developing countries as they are for the international policy community has, however, been insufficiently substantiated in the literature. Therefore, my justification for exploring the abovementioned question departs from my assumption that the preferences and perceptions of stakeholders cannot be presumed to coincide with aspirations of scientists and/ or policy-makers who have been working on REDD+. Understanding how stakeholders interpret, experience and assess REDD+ is central to understanding the appropriateness of REDD+ as an initiative aiming at addressing deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.
How does it relate to the work you did at IIASA?
I classify myself as a sustainability science geographer, and so I came to IIASA already very inspired because people who have had tremendous intellectual influence on me have at certain points been affiliated with IIASA, for example Robert Kates and William Clark. The main activity that I was doing during my YSSP participation was trying to translate literature from these intellectuals into testable hypotheses that will help me understand the question(s) I am asking in my dissertation research. This was not an easy process. It involved a lot of conversations between me, my advisor at Clark (Dr. Anthony Bebbington) and my advisor at IIASA (Dr. Hannes Böttcher). I would also like to acknowledge the very engaging and informative conversations that I had with Dr. Anthony Patt, Dr. Joanne Linnerooth-Bayer, Dr. Michael Thompson, and fellow YSSPers on this matter. They were very generous with their time.
How did the YSSP help you to get this grant?
I came to the YSSP with the main intention of finalizing the questions that I will pursue for my dissertation research. My goal was to have a defensible dissertation research proposal by the time I return to my PhD program at Clark University. I was also hoping that I would be able to build on this proposal to apply for research grants to pursue my empirical fieldwork in Cambodia. During the YSSP, I was very fortunate to be able to work very closely with Dr. Hannes Böttcher, from the Ecosystem Services and Management Program. Similar to other PhD students, I had so many questions that were floating in my head, some of which did not make any sense now that I am reflecting on them. Therefore, I very much admired Dr. Böttcher for his patience, supports and willingness to engage with all the ideas that I was coming up with. Through these many conversations, I did finish my dissertation research proposal that I defended at Clark. And this is the very same proposal that helped me get the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research award. Additionally, I was also able to get one of my dissertation papers accepted for publication at Environmental Science and Policy (DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.04.011) during my time at IIASA.
Why is this research important?
I hope that my research will have some impact in the academy and in the realm of forest governance and climate change debates based in a developing country context. In academe, my research engages with politically broader discussions on the science-policy interface, market-based approaches to forest governance in developing countries, stakeholders’ assessments of policies on climate change, and national sovereignty issues. Beyond the academy, this research is relevant to the ongoing debate on how scientific knowledge is being received, perceived and reconfigured in environmental governance policy that spans multiple scales of implementation and involves various groups of stakeholders. Finally, significant for the national and international policy negotiations on REDD+, this study should contribute to the debate on why certain groups of stakeholders have been supportive, while others have been critical, of the implementation of REDD+ projects in developing countries.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.