climate change

Palm Oil: Destruction in Every Drop

In 2012 I travelled to Borneo for what was supposed to be a two week holiday, and ended up being a two and a half year stay. It was a hard place to leave. For the most part still undiscovered and light in tourism, Borneo is a hidden world of ancient jungle and some of the most unique wildlife on the planet.

For me it was love at first sight. Borneo felt like a spiritual home, a place where I could be myself, indulge in nature and live a life free from stress and worry. In my mind, it was pointless trying to imagine any other place that could rival the beauty of the untouched beaches and jungles we found there.

Then I discovered the dark side of Borneo. It started with our visit to a local orangutan sanctuary where we found out that the species, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, is critically endangered. We learned that there are a number of reasons for this, including logging and poaching. However, the reason that was most alarming and seemed to be causing the most damage was palm oil production. Orangutan conservation group The Orangutan Project state on their website that “Palm Oil Plantations are now the leading suppliers for a global market that demands more of the tree’s versatile oil for cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. But palm oil’s appeal comes with significant costs. Palm oil plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. The orangutans that are displaced starve to death, are killed by plantation workers as pests, or die in the fires”.

It’s hard to imagine the rate at which palm oil deforestation is occurring, and in our corner of Malaysian Borneo we didn’t really see any signs of it. Surrounded by sprawling jungles and national parks, the scale of destruction seemed both unimaginable and a world away. That was until the next time we flew into Borneo following a holiday to Singapore. On our previous arrival I had seen the neat rows of what looked like manicured jungle stretching out across the landscape, but hadn’t given it a second thought. This time I knew exactly what I was looking at, and it broke my heart. What had once been primary forest, home to countless rare and exotic creatures, had been torn down and replaced by palm trees. Forever changing the landscape, and destroying the lives of its inhabitants in the process, big businesses had pillaged the land in the name of greed.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading producers of palm oil, with approximately 86% of the world’s product coming from the two countries. Unfortunately, the rate at which palm oil plantations are replacing jungle in the region is unsustainable. According to a study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has grown rapidly due to the increased popularity of palm oil. In the 2007 UNEP publication “The Last Stand of the Orangutan“, it is stated: “A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years, and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022.” In fact, according to the Orangutan Project, every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations.

The thought of permanently losing the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia is devastating. The current rates of deforestation are already killing 6000 orangutans per year. In an interview with the Independent last year, Greenpeace Chief Executive Alan Knight warned that “if the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild“. Asked how long they might survive, Mr Knight said: “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”

The destruction of jungle in Borneo and Sumatra isn’t just devastating the habitats of orangutans, of course. Proboscis monkeys, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, mouse-deer and Sumatran elephants are just some of the rare and unique species being driven to extinction by this industry. Furthermore, the global impact is something that cannot be ignored. Fast becoming one of the leading causes of climate change, palm oil production is something that affects us all.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “when tropical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is the leading cause of global warming; tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of total global warming emissions. But precisely because tropical forests store large amounts of carbon—both in primary (old-growth) forests and secondary (disturbed and regenerating) forests—it is important to protect these lands from oil palm development.”

The palm oil industry has also been linked to a number of human rights violations including child labour in remote parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, although the industry has created jobs and arguably injected money into some communities; there have been numerous cases of governments allowing large corporations to seize the land on which indigenous people have lived and worked for thousands of years.

No industry that puts profits before the lives of humans, the welfare of animals and the survival of our planet should be supported. As consumers, we have a responsibility to take action against it.

Living in Borneo was an experience that I will always remember as one of the best times of my life. I’ll never forget the freedom and wonder I felt when trekking through the beautiful jungles, swimming in the crystal clear waterfalls and spotting the amazing wildlife. I hope that one day my young nieces and nephews will be able to visit the place I talk so fondly of, and experience what a truly magical place it is. The way things are currently going, that won’t be possible. The jungles I trekked in my twenties could be gone before my nephew reaches adulthood, the last orangutan already a distant memory. This is not the future I want, and it’s not a future any of us should be paying for.

What can I do?

Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil, and is now found in half of all supermarket products. From pizzas, bread, cakes and biscuits to hair products, body creams and makeup, palm oil is everywhere. Unless you eat an entirely whole food diet, and prepare all your own food at home, you almost definitely consume it at some point during your day. But don’t give up hope; identifying and avoiding the majority of products containing palm oil isn’t as hard as you might think.

As of December 2014 it has been a requirement under EU law to clearly label food products containing palm oil. Although this doesn’t extend to other items such as soaps and makeup, you can either contact the manufacturer or do a quick check on the internet. A handy guide to palm oil-free products can be found here. If you do decide to stop using a product because is contains palm oil, make sure you contact the manufacturer to let them know that’s what you are doing. It’s important to let companies know that we as consumers will not give our money to the palm oil industry.

As well as avoiding palm oil in the products we use, it’s also important to continue to put pressure on the governments and the industry leaders responsible for it’s production. It’s vital that we give our support to groups that work to encourage ethical and sustainable moves within the industry, and petition to bring in stronger laws for palm oil production. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is the largest sustainability-focused organisation in the industry. Since forming in 2004 they have gained recognition for their work in ensuring products carrying their label only contain palm oil obtained via sustainable methods. However, at this stage its standards do not ban deforestation or habitat destruction and their stamp of approval therefore does not guarantee an ethical product. That said, it is groups such as these that will make a difference within the industry so it’s important that we work on helping them reach better goals every year.

Finally, support charities such as The Orangutan Project by adopting an orangutan, volunteering, donating or joining their Palm Oil Resistance group. Other charities such as Rainforest Rescue support people on the ground planting trees in Indonesia to try and reforest the region.

However you decide to help, your efforts can, and will, make a difference.

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Going greener: everyday ways to reduce your carbon footprint

Over the past 50 years, the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. Despite what some climate change deniers may say, experts in the field state that this trend is accelerating.

Global warming caused by climate change is the biggest threat our planet and population faces at this time. Already we are witnessing the early stages of what could be an unimaginable future for our planet if not dealt with today.

Even some of the more optimistic scientific predictions show a sharp increase in global temperature in the coming decades. The results of which will lead to a range of catastrophes including widespread flooding, species extinction, droughts and famine to name a few.

There’s no doubt that the most significant changes must come from policy makers, and that means we must continually apply pressure on politicians to make greener choices. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement has already been widely condemned, and should hopefully demonstrate to any world leader that going backwards on climate change is unacceptable.

With so much control being in the hands of the few, is there anything that we can do as individuals to help curb emissions and global warming? Thankfully there is. By making a few changes to our everyday lives, we as a population have the power to do our share of good for the planet.

Around the home

An environmentally friendly lifestyle really does begin at home. Some of the most simple things can have a huge impact on your carbon footprint. It’s therefore vital to make conscious decisions around your house.

Replace any regular incandescent light bulbs with energy saving light bulbs. These tend to use up to 80% less energy. The same consideration should be given to purchasing new appliances too; look for labels showing the A+++ rating. This means the appliance is not only better for the environment, but should be cheaper to run than a less energy efficient model. And make sure you don’t leave those appliances in standby mode. On average UK households spend £30 a year powering appliances left in standby mode.

When it comes to your central heating, it’s a good idea to make sure you have a programmable thermostat installed. This makes it easier for you to control the temperature of your home, and thus saves you money whilst also being better for the environment. You can also turn your thermostat down just two degrees in the winter to save a huge amount of carbon dioxide emissions. If you’ve still got a hot water tank then make sure the insulation is in good condition or consider re-insulating it.

Speaking of hot water, if possible try to use it less often. Heating water uses a lot of energy, so it’s best to only use it when really necessary. Try turning down your washing machine to 30 degrees, and only use it when you have a full load of washing. Install a low-flow shower head to not only save on hot water but to save water in general. Take showers instead of baths to really maximise your water saving efforts.

Powering your home

Burning fossil fuels to create energy for our homes and commercial buildings is the leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Everybody knows that in an ideal world we would all have solar panels or wind turbines installed on our properties; but the reality is that it’s often difficult and expensive to do so.

However, in most areas of the country it is possible to switch to a greener energy provider. Sites such as Green Electricity Marketplace allow users to find providers offering energy created using a number of environmentally friendly techniques, and often at a cheaper rate than a standard provider.

It’s not just getting green energy into your home that’s important though – it’s making sure your home is equipped to make the most of it. Swapping old single glazed windows for energy efficient double glazing is a great way to help the planet and save some money. This one does require some investment and it isn’t cheap, but can reduce energy loss by between 50% and 70%. If it really is more than you can afford, then installing secondary glass panels or even heavy lined curtains can make a difference.

It’s also important to consider how much energy is lost through the walls and roof of your property. In an uninsulated home, a quarter of all heat is lost through the roof of the property. The Energy Saving Trust says that “insulating your loft, attic or flat roof is a simple and effective way to reduce heat loss and reduce your heating bills. Loft insulation is effective for at least 40 years and it should pay for itself many times over”. In fact, you may not have to pay for the insulation at all, as a number of energy providers offer this service for free.


Recycling household waste is arguably one of the easiest things a person can do to help the planet, and yet many people still fail to do it. On average more than 65% of all household waste is recyclable, yet in the UK we only manage to send around 44% of it to recycling plants. In fact, in 2015 the amount of household waste being recycled dropped from 44.8% the previous year to 43.9%. 

Recycling really couldn’t be easier and is an incredibly effective way of saving energy. For example, one recycled tin can would save enough energy to power a television for 3 hours. And 70% less energy is required to recycle paper compared with making it from raw materials.

Remember to re-use those shopping bags too. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Worldwide, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used each year and less than 5 percent of plastic is recycled. In the United States, according to the EPA, we use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create.”

It’s not just packaging that can be recycled though. Much of the waste that goes into landfill in this country is food waste, which can be recycled just as effectively as non-organic waste. If you have the room in your garden then why not start a compost pile, which is an effective and environmentally friendly way of disposing of a lot of your scraps and peelings. Not everything you throw out of your kitchen should be composted, but what you can compost you should. If you aren’t able to compost at home, many local councils now provide food bins which are collected weekly and taken to be used in anaerobic digestion to create electricity.


What we eat has a far bigger impact on the planet than many might realise. Animal agriculture, for example, is a leading cause of climate change and a greater contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that the entire travel sector combined. A report released by the United Nations in 2010 outlined the need for our population to move to a meat and dairy-free diet for the sake of the planet.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), global agriculture—dominated by livestock production and the grains grown to support it—accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) finds that “18% of global greenhouse gas emissions is directly attributable to livestock production”. Whichever figure you decide to trust, the evidence is clear; continued consumption of animal products is not environmentally viable.

It’s not just the amount of carbon dioxide produced by animal agriculture that’s the problem though. Globally we raise approximately 60 billion animals for food each year. This creates a serious problem with the amount of methane produced by the livestock. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that animal agriculture is globally the single largest source of methane emissions and that, pound for pound, methane is more than 25 times as effective as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere.

The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy built on this, revealing that “Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years”.

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA): “Chatham House, an international affairs think tank, has called for a carbon tax on meat to help combat climate change. Of course, eating vegan foods rather than animal-based ones is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint. A University of Chicago study even showed that you can reduce your carbon footprint more effectively by going vegan than by switching from a conventional car to a hybrid.”

Whilst switching to a plant-based diet is certainly the best way to combat climate change, it’s also important that you monitor where your vegetables are coming from. Ensuring the majority of fruit and vegetables you buy are locally grown means you can rest assured that your diet is not having a negative effect on the planet. By also eating as seasonally as possible, you can avoid the energy used shipping out of season produce to your area.


The transport sector may not be the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but it certainly is up there. Despite some truly pioneering inventors working on creating the vehicles that will carry us all in the future, the reality today is that we are still largely dependant on fossil fuels when it comes to running our cars, buses and planes.

It goes without saying that it’s better for the environment for people to car pool or use public transport. The fewer vehicles there are on the road, the less greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere each day. So if you can share, do share.

If you do need to be on the road in your own car, then you can still do your bit for the planet. For many of us, switching to a hybrid or electric car is too expensive to consider, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on making your daily commute more eco-friendly. By making sure your tyres are fully inflated, and that you’re not carrying any additional weight, you can reduce fuel consumption. Also, properly filled tyres last longer which means less of them end up in landfill.

It’s also important to make sure your engine is properly maintained so that it is using fuel efficiently. And if you can make do without the air conditioning being on, you’ll be saving even more fuel.

Whatever changes you make to ensure your vehicle is running efficiently, you are obviously still going to be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, but this can be offset through a service offered on a number of websites. According to World Land Trust: “Carbon offsetting is a process whereby an individual or company takes action to prevent the release of emissions elsewhere, or secures the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide as part of a wider approach to measure, reduce and then offset emissions through impactful conservation projects.”


It goes without saying that many of the most powerful ways to tackle climate change are also the easiest. You can start making these changes right now, and begin having a more beneficial impact on the health of our planet. Without all of us making changes to the way we live, there really isn’t a lot to look forward to. But if we work together and all do our bit, then just maybe we can leave our children a safer, healthier world.

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