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What are the limits to oil palm expansion?

Pirker, Johannes, Mosnier, Aline, Kraxner, Florian, Havlík, Petr, Obersteiner, Michael
Global environmental change 2016 v.40 pp. 73-81
Elaeis guineensis, agricultural products, carbon sinks, climatic factors, conservation areas, developing countries, energy, planting, poverty, transportation, tropical forests, tropics, Indonesia, Malaysia
Palm oil production has boomed over the last decade, resulting in an expansion of the global oil palm planting area from 10 to 17 Million hectares between 2000 and 2012. Previous studies showed that a significant share of this expansion has come at the expense of tropical forests, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia, the current production centers. Governments of developing and emerging countries in all tropical regions increasingly promote oil palm cultivation as a major contributor to poverty alleviation, as well as food and energy independence. However, being under pressure from several non-governmental environmental organizations and consumers, the main palm oil traders have committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil. Against this backdrop we assess the area of suitable land and what are the limits to future oil palm expansion when several constraints are considered. We find that suitability is mainly determined by climatic conditions resulting in 1.37 billion hectares of suitable land for oil palm cultivation concentrated in twelve tropical countries. However, we estimate that half of the biophysically suitable area is already allocated to other uses, including protected areas which cover 30% of oil palm suitable area. Our results also highlight that the non-conversion of high carbon stock forest (>100t AGB/ha) would be the most constraining factor for future oil palm expansion as it would exclude two-thirds of global oil palm suitable area. Combining eight criteria which might restrict future land availability for oil palm expansion, we find that 234 million hectares or 17% of worldwide suitable area are left. This might seem that the limits for oil palm expansion are far from being reached but one needs to take into account that some of this area might be hardly accessible currently with only 18% of this remaining area being under 2h transportation to the closest city and that growing demand for other agricultural commodities which might also compete for this land has not been yet taken into account.