The carbon footprint of oil palm in Indonesia

By Ni’matul Khasanah, Meine van Noordwijk, Andree Ekadinata, Sonya Dewi, Subekti Rahayu, Harti Ningsih, Anang Setiawan, Elisa Dwiyanti and Rahayu Octaviani.


The European Union plans to limit the conversion of land globally for biofuel production. Such conversions will be included when estimating greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels. The World Agroforestry Centre had earlier assessed the carbon footprint of oil palm in Indonesia and made similar recommendations.

The European Commission published a proposal on 17 October 2012 to limit global land conversion for biofuel production. The proposal limits to 5% the use of food-based biofuels—such as oil palm—to meet the targets of the Renewable Energy Directive. Whatsmore, the estimated impact of global land conversion on greenhouse gas emissions from biofuel production will be taken into account.

The Renewable Energy Directive of the European Union includes a commitment to substitute part of the Union’s transport fuel with biofuels in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Directive defines minimum net emissions reductions and implies that palm oil-exporting countries, such as Indonesia, need to have reliable data on the carbon footprint of palm oil that is intended to be used as biofuel.

To gather such data, we applied the Biofuel Emissions Reduction Estimator Scheme to 23 oil palm plantations in Indonesia. These plantations all abided by what was considered ‘good practice’.

Oil palm plantation, Indonesia. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Kurniatun Hairiah

What we found

Part of our findings was that ten of the 23 plantations had converted more than 60% of their area from forests to oil palm. Another ten plantations had a slightlylower forest-to-oil palm conversion rate, which ranged10–20% of the total conversion area in the plantation.Only three of the 23 plantations were converted from purely non-forest areas.

A plantation which has converted a large proportion of its area from forest to oil palm will have higher emissions compared to a plantation that converted from tree-based, non-tree-based or non-vegetation land uses.

We also found that oil palm averages 40 tonne of carbon per hectare. To come to this figure, we analyzed the amount of carbon stored in oil palm aboveground, over time, in different production environments (such as on peat and mineral soils) and management regimes, including large plantations and smallholdings.

The average net emissions rate of all sampled plantations owing to land-use conversion ranged 0–36 tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare per year. It’s worth nothing that annual carbon dioxide emissions from mineral soil were zero.

Conclusions and recommendations

We concluded that the Directive’s required minimum reductions for biofuel use could not be achieved from palm oil sourced from plantations on peat soils. Indeed, use of such plantations’ palm oil for biodiesel would not reduce emissions but actually more than double them globally.

On mineral soils, if forests that stored more than 60 tonne of carbon per hectare were replaced with oil palm plantations, then the Directive’s standard could not be achieved either.  However, oil palm produced on mineral soils that were formerly not forested could, in nearly all cases, meet the target.

Finally, we recommended that the Directive’s current maximum of 5% of a plantation’s area that can be on peat should be revised downwards. Further, new plantations should not be established on land that contains more than 40 tonne of carbon per hectare, as such land would invoke a carbon debt and make it difficult to meet the reduction target.


Read the technical brief

Khasanah N, van Noordwijk M, Ekadinata A, Dewi S, Rahayu S, Ningsih H, Setiawan A, Dwiyanti E, Octaviani R. 2012. The carbon footprint of Indonesian palm oil production. Technical Brief 25: palm oil series. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.


Read the European Commission’s press release on the biofuels proposal






This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


Edited by Robert Finlayson

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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