Hard to Ignore: An exploration of the issues on palm oil agrofuel through a political economy and public health framework
By Hedva Chiu
The advent of agrofuel
Globalization has liberalized trade, thus increasing transport of goods and services, which calls for a greater demand for energy (Houtart, 2010). While agrofuels have been a topic of discussion since the launch of the transportation industry, the discovery of huge deposits of fossil fuels shafted those discussions to the wayside (“Biofuel Facts, Biofuel Information,” 2014). The depleting sources of fossil fuel have become more obvious in the past few decades leading to renewed interest in agrofuels. Coupled with the apparent climate crisis, which some attribute to the burning of fossil fuels, many governmental bodies are scrambling to find alternative energy sources. This has led to a rise in demand for agrofuels (“Palm oil | Greenpeace UK”, n.d.).
Agrofuels are a type of biofuel, where energy is derived from burning of agricultural crops (“Biofuel Facts, Biofuel Information,” 2014). While it can be used in its pure form, it is often mixed in with regular diesel. Palm oil is a popular choice of agrofuel because it appears to be a direct solution to pollution caused by the use of cars, which is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, the sun is generally accepted as an unlimited resource, and plants are very good converters of the sun’s energy via the process of photosynthesis (Houtart, 2010). When combined with the ability of plants to regrow annually under normal circumstances, palm oil is seen as a good, clean, renewable energy resource. It is also the most efficient feedstock for bio-diesel in terms of the number of litres it can produce per hectare of land (McCarthy, 2010).
There have been a lot of criticisms against the use of palm oil as an agrofuel because of mounting evidence of its inefficiency against climate change. One reason is that when considering a life cycle analysis of its production, the amount of GHG it emits far exceeds the level acceptable to the US Environment Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard Program (“US biofuel policy excludes Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil amid industry protests,” n.d.). Another reason is that when taking into account the externalities (which are the costs of production, transportation and distribution of agrofuels to the environment and society), the costs are high (Houtart, 2010). Despite all that, palm oil agrofuel is still a very popular commodity because there are some benefits. These include the decrease of reliance on fossil fuels and its ability to stimulate economic development of rural areas and contribute to rural livelihood (Obidzinski, Andriani, Komarudin, & Andrianto, 2012). The debate surrounding agrofuels is above all else a debate about climate justice because the industry has the potential to benefit or adversely affect the environment and society.
Biofuel in Indonesia
One of the largest contributors to the supply of palm oil is Indonesia (USDA, 2014). While much of the demand for crude palm oil (CPO) comes from the food industry, the agrofuel industry plays a significant role (Obidzinski et al., 2012). In 2010 Indonesia produced 400 million litres of agrofuel and the number is climbing. It has been speculated that the production of agrofuel is especially attractive to Indonesian government because Indonesia’s supply of fossil fuel is dwindling, and hence there is a need to secure another export commodity. Palm oil has taken a position among the top three export earners for Indonesia in 2012 (“Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry,” n.d.). Furthermore there would be a lesser need to import fossil fuel and the government could save money on the national budget because there would be a lesser need to subsidize the fossil fuel industry (Obidzinski et al., 2012).
However, the problems associated with palm oil agrofuel are not unlike the ones mentioned before. In particular, there are a few that affect Indonesia specifically. Firstly, much of the land used for growing palm is forested area. The clearing of that area for palm tree plantations has ironically helped Indonesia break the 2008 Guinness world record for “fastest rate of deforestation” (“Palm oil | Greenpeace UK,” n.d.). To add salt to the wound, Indonesia is host to one of the largest tropical forest zones in the world. As forests are known carbon sinks, destroying them would mean that the world is losing a large portion of its ability to absorb atmospheric carbon (Houtart, 2010). Another major type of land that is being converted is peat land (“Palm oil | Greenpeace UK,” n.d.). Peat land is another major type of carbon sink, hence destroying it would not only release the carbon already trapped in the earth, but it would also no longer be able to absorb carbon. Furthermore, there have been reports of human right abuses for workers of the plantations and refineries (Skinner, 2013) and conflicts over land (Obidzinski et al., 2012). Despite all of that, the government still endorses and pushes for this industry to grow, and even creates policies to increase agrofuel use among locals by having one third of the palm oil dedicated to agrofuel (Rusmana & Listiyorini, 2013).
Why, despite mounting evidence against it, is palm oil agrofuel still desirable to the Indonesian government? In this paper I argue that this is because of the disconnection between different evidence and concepts, which hinders the ability of policymakers to see the bigger picture. Also, the predominant moral framework employed to analyze this problem is lacking impact because it focuses on the plight of the marginalized populations and does not link these concepts to the individuals at the level of decision-making. I suggest that by approaching the situation through a political economy framework, a new tactic to address the issues surrounding palm oil agrofuel production will become evident. This new tactic would lead to constructive discussion on the public health concerns as related to palm oil agrofuel production.
The debate surrounding palm oil agrofuel is in essence a debate on climate justice. On one hand, agrofuel has the potential to be a cleaner, more sustainable substitute for petroleum. However, it is fraught with destructive environmental practices and human rights abuses. Palm oil plantations have caused vast deforestation, leading to reduced biodiversity, unbalanced ecosystems and ruined local livelihood. The oil refineries also require a large amount of energy input, and secrete a massive amount of GHG. Current literature has been able to prove these concepts, but it has been ignored by the Indonesian government largely due to its segmented nature. Rather than focusing on one sector or social class within society, we need to extend our research perspective to look at how agrofuels affect society as a whole.
Going forward, we may benefit from understanding the issues of agrofuel through a political economy framework. By recognizing the processes that form the current social relations and situations, we can forge new research paths that lead to convincing data, which we can present to policymakers. This new path would redefine social relations by addressing public health issues that affect all levels and sectors of society.
In this paper I showed the far-reaching impacts of climate change caused by agrofuel production on public health. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg and further research on the health hazards associated with palm tree plantations, oil refineries and transportation of agrofuels is needed. More importantly, this research should incorporate measurements on the health of citizens in neighbouring countries and the broader global community. This approach would link environmental issues with public health concerns and global political issues. However, this type of research is not without its challenges. It is harder to determine how much of the climate change induced by agrofuel production causes a certain health outcome. Furthermore, it is difficult to measure with precise accuracy the area and the number of generations affected by pollution. Nonetheless, these challenges can be overcome with the advent of scientific technology. With research data that synthesizes issues across all social sectors and classes, it would be hard for any governmental policymaker to ignore it.
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