Grappling with Inordinate Uncertainty; Measuring the Carbon Footprint of Tropical Land-Use Change

June 2011 – A Study by World Growth

It is fashionable to consider the ‘carbon footprint’ that day-to-day activities of humans have on planet earth. The rationale for this concept is that it will give us a readily understood indication of the emissions of certain gases – especially carbon dioxide and methane – that are implicated in raising the earth’s temperature and the level of the sea which has become the focus of much contemporary concern in the community. The published research has concentrated on primary forest and permanent grassland. Little has been published on secondary forest or degraded forestland. What has been documented, however, highlights the high degree of spatial and temporal variation that exists in such cases due to differences in local environmental factors. This is highly significant for any assessment of the ‘carbon footprint’ for palm oil. Most of the recent oil palm development has been on tropical forest land, which has been extensively disturbed or degraded by a combination of fire, harvesting, and clearance for shifting cultivation. The object of this paper is, therefore, to set out logically and coherently the chain of carbon-related events which deliver the palm oil product, to review the literature relating to each stage, and to bring together the data available in a framework which will have utility for a range of readers. The analysis will also identify weaknesses and unreliability in the information and so make recommendations for more research and analysis.

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