Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) production in Indonesia: carbon footprint and diversification options

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a uniquely valuable palm as source of low-cost vegetable oil. However, the success and method of its expansion (monoculture plantation) especially in biodiversity-rich Indonesia and Malaysia have made it one of the most controversial crops of the world. One of the policy consequences of the boycotts and debate is the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) of European countries that sets binding targets for the emission savings to be achieved when oils are used as feedstock of biofuel. Exporting countries such as Indonesia need to have reliable data on the carbon footprint of their product across production systems and the products’ lifecycle. Diversification of oil palm plantations starts to gain attention as a strategy to increase farmer resilience. The objectives of this thesis were (1) to estimate the carbon footprint of palm oil production in Indonesia when it is used as biofuel and express it as CO2 equivalent and emissions saving, and (2) to explore mixed oil palm systems as diversification strategy to increase farmer benefit and to reduce the carbon footprint. Through a survey and sample collection in more than 20 plantations distributed over Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi we analysed the palm oil life cycle. Using the Biofuel Emission Reduction Estimator Scheme (BERES) emissions savings were differentiated by carbon debt (land use change) and current practices. Process-based modelling using WaNuLCAS (Water, Nutrient and Light Capture in Agroforestry System) helped explore intercropping systems beyond current practice. Results show that it is possible to achieve the high emission savings target with palm oil to comply with the RED requirement. Of companies with ‘good agricultural practice’ 40% and 25% of production can meet the 35% (2015) and 60% (2018) emissions savings standards, respectively. The larger the areas that were converted from high-C stock forest, the larger the fraction of peat, the larger the emissions from fertilizers, transportation and processing (incl. methane) and the lower the yield of Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB), in a mix of production situations that is accounted for jointly (as is the case for ‘company’ level assessments), the harder it is to achieve emission savings. While fertilizer application increases FFB yield, it also increases N2O emissions. Selected mixed oil palm systems can provide considerable economic and environmental system improvements. The Land Equivalent Ratio of mixed oil palm – cacao systems can be 1.4, showing a superior way to achieve land sparing as a goal of efficient use of land, relative to monocultures for each commodity separately. Diversification should be a valid counterpart of current intensification research and policies to help make palm oil more sustainable from both social and environmental perspectives.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van Noordwijk, M., Promotor
  • Slingerland, Maja, Co-promotor
Award date9 Apr 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463435697
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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