Impacts of Palm Oil Production on Climate – 5 Questions for Phil Taylor

Phil TaylorPhilip Taylor is a CU Boulder postdoctoral scholar whose research ranges from nutrient cycling in tropical rainforests to addressing sustainability challenges of industrial agriculture. He is the lead author of a 2014 publication on the potential for creating energy from methane emissions from wastewater produced by palm oil production plants.. Methane is a powerful heat trapping gas, thirty four times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Phil is featured in the latest Learn More About Climate video, “Impacts of Palm Oil Production on Climate Change: Realities and Opportunities”.

We sat down with Taylor to find out what inspired him to work on sustainable issues on an international scale and to learn more about a new local project that implements solutions for sustainable food production.

Tell us about your background. What inspired you to this work in ecology and sustainability around palm oil?

As a global ecologist, my desire is to learn how humans can live in a way that is positive for ecosystems and for society. Much of my research focuses on exploring the climate sensitivity of tropical rainforests and their role in the global carbon cycle.  I was drawn to palm oil because it’s a rising driver of global change: as tropical rainforests disappear, they are being replaced by palm oil plantations.

Was the palm oil methane capture project a success?  Have any other countries adopted this idea? 

The project was a huge success. Before our global analysis of the climate impact and energy potential of palm oil methane, we studied a single, archetypical palm oil wastewater system in southwest Costa Rica. We communicated our data to the owners of the mill and they invested in a biogas energy generation facility. Other milling operations are doing the same thing, however, the lack of regulatory incentives and infrastructure is slowing biogas development.

What are the top two challenges of trying to create change towards more environmentally friendly practices in the palm oil industry?

The first dilemma is finding a need for the *biogas energy to generate an economic return. Most palm oil mills are remotely located and are already powered by burning biomass using other waste streams. There is certainly demand for rural, renewable electricity, however, the opportunity to power local communities is not an investment priority of palm oil mill owners. Second, the infrastructure, regulatory policy and finances are not in place to facilitate energy sales to power grids for electricity transmission. Fortunately, feed-in tariff schemes are emerging in the global south – however slowly.

From what we know, it sounds like you’ve transitioned from working on sustainable issues on an international scale to a project that implements local solutions for sustainable food production in Boulder County. Tell us about the Mad Agriculture project you are currently working on. 

Mad Agriculture is my life’s work. It’s inspired by the Mad Farmer poems of Wendell Berry, which provide alternative ideas to neoliberal notions of success, wealth and economy that underlie the current destruction of community and Earth. Food is an important area to focus on because how we eat largely determines how Earth is used. Our food system needs to be founded on principles of regeneration, recycling and intergenerational commonwealth. In this vein, Mad Agriculture’s first project is farming insects on food waste to create a sustainable source of animal feed. It’s yet to be seen how the project will entirely manifest, but it’s been exciting and has me rooted in the Front Range, which I find rewarding.

Do you have advice on how consumers can choose more sustainable foods and products? 

Eat well and buy foods that enrich you and maximize goodness. Think about the hidden consequences of your food. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where did it come from?
  • Who did it benefit?
  • At what cost was it produced?

Consumption is a power force – choose wisely in everything you buy.
About Philip Taylor

Dr. Philip Taylor earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. His work has been published in academic journals including Nature, Nature Climate Change and Ecology. He has led research, service and outreach campaigns throughout Africa, Latin America and southeast Asia. To learn more about Taylor’s Mad Agriculture project, visit Taylor and the Mad Agriculture project were recently highlighted on the eTown radio show in an interview with host Nick Forster – see the interview here.

To learn more about the palm oil methane capture project and how to reduce your environmental impact, visit our newly expanded “Reduce Your Impact” page here.

*Biogas can be produced from raw materials such as agricultural waste, manure, municipal waste, plant material, sewage, green waste or food waste. In this case, Taylor is referring to biogas produced from palm oil production waste.  Biogas is a renewable energy source and in many cases exerts a very small carbon footprint.

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