John Hayward Posted: 3 March 2010
'The vast scale of palm tree plantations in southeast Asia (palm oil being the most efficient source of biofuel) is having a disastrous effect on the environment, partly in the wholesale forest clearance and burning that precedes the plantation, and partly in the monoculture that replaces diverse ecosystems.' (Spencer and White (2007) Christianity, climate change and sustainable living, p.193-4)
In a week that has seen the professor at the heart of the climategate scandal grilled by MPs, it is emerging that both the Government and European Commission are finally beginning to realise they may have been fundamentally wrong over biofuels.
As we warned two years ago, doing what's best for the environment means more than simply being seen to 'go green'. The Times reports that 127 million litres of palm oil was added to diesel sold to motorists in Britain last year and the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation requires 3.25 per cent of all fuel sold to come from crops this year, yet a government study reveals that palm oil increases emissions by 31 per cent because of the carbon released when forest and grassland is turned into plantations. Meanwhile, a leaked internal memo from the EC's agriculture directorate reportedly expresses concern that Europe's entire biofuels industry, which receives almost £3 billion a year in subsidies, would be jeopardised if indirect changes in land use were included in sustainability standards.
Environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable, the expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has apparently turned it into the third-largest CO2 emitter, after China and the US, and four times as much land is now used in the Indonesian island of Sumatra for palm oil plantations as there is containing natural orang-utan rainforest habitat, yet it takes up to 840 years for a palm oil plantation to soak up the carbon emitted when the rainforest it replaced was burnt.
I repeat again that if we were less concerned about our carbon footprints and more concerned about our social footprints, if we rejected the secular world's narrow eco-agenda and pursued a broader social vision rooted not in wealth but in justice and relational wellbeing, then we might begin to have a more positive impact on both society and the environment. As we note in our video Environmentalists: Missing the wood for the trees?, we will really only care for the environment well when we look at how a good God deals with his good creation. It is because humanity is grounded in and dependent on the environment that if we exploit the environment, it will go badly for us.
Ultimately, the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbour, not to love the world and love the universe. When we fail to focus on people and instead make an idol of the planet, we should be unsurprised if we find our lives out of balance and need to rediscover a sense of shalom.