Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The creation of new oil palm plantations causes almost twice as much environmental damage as maintaining mature plantations.
According to a new study, prepping the land and the growth of young plants are the two most carbon-intensive components of oil palm plantations.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, is the first to look at the release of the three most common greenhouse gases across the lifespan of oil palm plantations.
Already the world's most ubiquitous cooking oil, demand for palm oil has more than tripled over the last two decades.
To better understand how rising demand is likely to impact environmental resources and carbon emissions across Southeast Asia, scientists studied greenhouse gas emissions at several test sites in Malaysia, the world's second-largest producer of palm oil. Each of the test sites featured land at different stages of development: secondary forest, newly drained but uncut forest, recently planted young oil palm plantation and mature oil palm plantation.
Greenhouse gas emissions data showed the clearing and draining of land, as well as the planting and growth of young palms, produced 50 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than mature plantations -- nearly doubling the global warming potential of each land site over the 30-year lifespan of a oil palm plantation.
As growers across Southeast Asia run out of suitable oil palm acreage, they are turning to peat swamp forests to expand operations and meet growing palm oil demand.
"Tropical peat swamps have historically been avoided by palm oil growers due to the amount of preparation and drainage the land needs, but as land becomes more scarce there has been an increased demand to convert sites and the periphery of North Selangor is being heavily encroached upon by palm oil plantations," lead researcher Sofie Sjogersten from the University of Nottingham said in a news release.
Peat swamp forests are one of nature's most efficient carbon-storing ecosystems. When they are drain and cleared, more oxygen penetrates the soil, accelerating decomposition and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Draining and clearing peat swamps also increases the release of methane and nitrooxyperoxy nitrate into the air, two powerful greenhouse gases.
"Our research shows that this conversion comes at a heavy cost to the environment with greater carbon and greenhouse gas emissions being caused by the early stages of the growth of palm oil," Sjogersten said.