The Palm Oil Problem: Tropical Deforestation

Photo: WWF


Sharon Smith is a campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an alliance of more than 400,000 citizens and scientists that puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Sharon works with the Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative at UCS to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions related to land use changes. We asked her a few questions about tropical deforestation. 


What’s the connection between tropical deforestation and climate change?

Tropical deforestation accounts for around 10 percent of the world’s heat-trapping carbon emissions.  That’s equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of 600 million average U.S. cars.  If we want to tackle climate change, we need to look not only at our fuel and electricity use, but at agriculture.  A small handful of food commodities—soy, palm oil, and beef—have been responsible for tremendous deforestation in the tropics, which drives climate change.


Let’s look at one of these products: palm oil. Why is palm oil a problem? 

Many of our favorite household brands and products—from Dunkin’ Donuts and Doritos to L’Oréal and Jergens lotion—contain palm oil. When forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the gas that is the leading cause of global warming.  Cutting down forests to plant palm oil destroys the habitat for endangered species, reduces biodiversity, and contributes to climate change.



Where is palm oil produced?

About 85% of palm oil is produced in Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia and Malaysia. As an example of what’s at risk, let me share a bit about a particularly spectacular region, the Gunung Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra. This area is at risk of conversion to palm oil plantations, and even within the “protected” national park in the ecosystem, some areas have been illegally cut down and planted with oil palm trees.  This area is extraordinary—it serves as habitat for the Sumatran orangutan, elephant, and tiger, all of which are critically endangered.

Across Southeast Asia, many of the forest species are unique.  They’re found nowhere else on Earth, and only about 15 percent of them can also survive in oil palm plantations.


What can the average person do about this?

People can ask what ingredients are in their food and personal care products—and how those ingredients were produced—and tell companies what they want to see.  Consumer advocacy drives transparency in the agribusiness sector, and drives changes in sourcing practices for big brands. So, individuals should communicate to their favorite brands about the climate and biodiversity risks of unsustainable palm oil, and make sure the company is sourcing deforestation-free oil.

Thankfully, producing deforestation-free palm oil is entirely possible.  In December 2013, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, made a commitment to go deforestation-free.  They control 45% of the global supply in palm oil. Their CEO stated, “We know from our customers and other stakeholders that there is a strong and rapidly growing demand for traceable, deforestation-free palm oil, and we intend to meet it as a core element of our growth strategy.” 

If the largest palm oil trader in the world can make that commitment, the entire market can.  But the market won’t respond unless individuals like you and I demand change.  That’s one of our roles at UCS—educating the public and mobilizing consumers, in order to increase the demand for deforestation-free palm oil. 


What is UCS currently focusing its efforts on?

In March, we’ll release a new report scoring the top 30 companies across the snack food, fast food and personal care sectors on how well their palm oil commitments protect tropical forests. We’ll then give consumers tools to reach out directly to low-scoring companies and demand changes in their palm oil sourcing.  You can follow our campaign at


More information:

Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation

How Businesses Can Go Deforestation-Free

Palm Oil and Global Warming factsheet



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