The versatility of palm oil is impressive. It is used in countless foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, biofuel, and industrial applications. It has become a mainstay in the economy of many tropical countries. The race to develop this crop is headlong, and the costs of its unchecked growth are sobering. Palm oil production occurs throughout the tropics on huge monoculture farms which are planted on land formerly occupied by rainforest. After the removal of commercially valuable trees, the rest of the forest is put to the torch both to remove the biomass and to leave an ashy layer of fertilizer for the coming crop. This is, as you might expect, a smoky affair. It is an ever more widespread and common occurence, and perhaps nowhere moreso than in Indonesia. The forests of Sumatra and Borneo have been decimated by this practice. What makes it especially damaging to the atmosphere isn’t simply the burning of the trees and brush, but of the very ground itself. Rainforests often sit on massive stores of peat which, once ignited, can smolder in deep unstoppable fires that burn for months, or years. Further, peat fires release large quantities of methane. A forest fire will fill the air with the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane, but a peat fire releases ten times more methane than does a forest fire, and methane is 25 times more heat-trapping than CO2.
The fires are an annual occurrence during the dry season, bringing smoke and haze to Indonesia and beyond. In any year, the smoke is an ordeal for people in agricultural areas, but it has brought respiratory anguish to the cities as well, and the situation reached or exceded record levels in 2015. Somewhere around 100,000 fires burned in Indonesia from August to October of that year, exacerbated by an El Niño weather pattern, which can bring heavy rain to California, but drought to Southeast Asia. Agricultural land developers also cut drainage channels in peat bogs to dry them out, making them even more susceptible to fire. The combination of all these factors meant that Indonesia’s carbon pollution output exceded that of the entire United States for 26 of 44 days between September and October. Cumulatively, they equaled the annual CO2 output of all of Germany. Not since 2006 had there been this kind of volume of smoke from such fires–estimates run beyond 4.2 million acres gone up in smoke. Public events, especially athletic contests, were called off due to the choking haze, and thousands suffered illness or even death from respiratory distress. As if the atmospheric and human health consequences of these fires weren’t enough, the blazes silently eradicated unknown numbers of species of plants, insects and animals, unique organisms that will never be seen again.
As in 2006, when smoke plumes were visible from space and seen drifting all the way to South Korea, satellites show the smoke moving far afield again, affecting populations that will see none of the economic benefit accruing to heedless palm oil developers. The pressures of environmental organizations and everyday citizens on government has brought some promises of new legislation to control this rampant practice. But palm oil is lucrative and the will of politicians is not always up to the task. The fires of fall 2015 and their contribution to the spectre of worldwide climate change were a sorrowful prelude to the United Nations international climate summit held in Paris not long afterward. And in the years since, forest-clearing fires continue to be set, and the world continues to warm.