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Palm oil versus Pongamia

2 June 2022
13404 min

A comparison between two different biofuels 

At the beginning of a working day, a majority within the Netherlands have, without necessarily being aware of it, used Palm Oil for three separate things already. Examples of products that contain Palm Oil are shampoo, toothpaste and peanut butter. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Palm Oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet. What few people know is that Palm oil is frequently used not only for consumer products but as a biofuel too. Within the transport sector, for example. Many trucks run on blended diesel from palm oil. Since we from Corekees claim to know quite a bit about biofuels, we will use this blog post to make a comparison between Palm Oil and Pongamia Oil. Our goal is to once and for all establish which one is best as a biofuel.

Why do we use Palm Oil as a biofuel? 

Because it is cheap and versatile. 85% of the Palm Oil used worldwide comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. In these countries, both raw material prices and wages are low and this results in low oil prices. Besides being cheap, Palm Oil is versatile in use. It has a neutral odour and mixes well with other oils. The transportation industry makes extensive use of this biofuel as fossil fuel prices continue to rise. This trend is expected to continue in the coming decades. Alternatives such as palm oil and Pongamia oil will therefore become increasingly interesting.
We regularly mention Pongamia’s attributes as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, but what can we say about the sustainability of Palm Oil? 

The Sustainability of Palm Oil

Potentially, Palm Oil is sustainable. But in the way it is currently cultivated, it certainly is not. This has been brought to our attention for years by Greenpeace, among others. They have identified deforestation and the cultivation process as the main culprits. Because the demand for palm oil has been increasing for years, the production has been scaled up also. As a result, more and more farmers in Southeast Asia, for example, have switched to growing oil palm (the tree whose fruit forms the feedstock for palm oil). The consequences are disastrous. The primary forests needed to maintain ecological systems are being logged or burned to make way for Oil Palm plantations. Diverse natural vegetation is lost in the felling process and gives way to a monoculture of Palm plantations, disturbing the natural balance with all its consequences.

Moreover, a lot of water is needed for the cultivation and pressing of palm oil. After pressing, this water is polluted but gets dumped in nearby rivers which of course causes environmental damage. In addition, many pesticides are used on the plantations. In the first place to prevent rats from eating the fruit, but the pesticides also kill other animals within the food chain. All in all, the above means that the common way of producing palm oil is not exactly sustainable. 

So can it not be sustainable at all?

Fortunately, there are still projects that produce Palm Oil in a sustainable manner. These projects ensure that the palm oil they sell is not obtained with the aid of logging or other destructive methods. The quality mark for this is RSPO, which stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. RSPO is a non-profit organization that brings together the seven links in the chain of palm oil production. The links identified are farmers, traders, producers of consumer goods, sellers, banks, environmental organizations and governments. RSPO sets social and environmental conditions to make the entire chain sustainable. When these conditions are met, the parties receive the RSPO certificate. 

So how does the Oil Palm compare to the Pongamia tree?
Before we state the differences, let’s have a look at the similarities first. Both trees thrive in tropical conditions, within 30 degrees around the equator. In addition, both are extremely suitable for the production of biofuel. They are both in the top 4 crops with the highest oil production per hectare, per year! Respectively 5950 litres of oil for Oil Palm and 4000 litres for Pongamia.

The uses of the oil obtained from the fruits do vary. For example, Palm oil can be used for both daily products and biofuel. In principle, Pongamia oil can also be processed into raw material for daily consumer products, but the earning model for processing into biofuel is more advantageous. There is also a difference in terms of harvesting frequency: The oil palm is ready for the first harvest after 3 years. Pongamia only after 3 to 4 years. In addition, the oil palm can provide harvest yields throughout the year and Pongamia only once a year.

So far, then, sustainably grown Palm Oil seems to be beating Pongamia on all fronts. That is true until you start factoring in the so-called carbon intensity

Figure 1: table of oil production and carbon intensity

Carbon Intensity?

The relationship between climate and economy is often expressed in terms of emission intensity or Carbon Intensity. This is a figure of the greenhouse gas emissions of a particular industry per Euro of added value. This figure can be used to compare the environmental impact of different fuels or activities: the higher the emission intensity, the more polluting the product. Guess what? The Carbon Intensity of the Oil Palm is 37. That of the Pongamia tree only 14.1

Let’s wrap it up. Which oil is really sustainable?

We can’t ignore it: the majority of the world’s population uses Palm Oil on a daily basis. Not only in consumer goods, but as fuel too. This versatility of Palm Oil really is a plus! In addition, the oil is reasonably sustainable during processing and use. However, the way in which oil palms are generally cultivated is certainly not! Every day, many hectares of ancient forests disappear to enable the construction of new plantations. Palm oil with an RSPO certificate is a fine product but unfortunately certified oil seems to be the exception rather than the norm.

Pongamia oil is less versatile than Palm oil. As a result, this oil is currently used exclusively for biofuel production. So in that respect, it loses out to Palm oil. However, because we grow Pongamia on marginal land (land that has been deforested for more than 10 years and is not suitable for growing food) we are not competing – unlike oil palms grown for fuel – with scarce agricultural land. Moreover, we plant relatively few trees per hectare. This prevents monoculture and leaves room for natural vegetation. This is in stark contrast with farmers who are cutting down more and more primeval forests to meet the demand for palm oil. When we consider all of the above and then also put the respective Carbon Intensities of 37 versus 14.1 for Palm Oil and Pongamia Oil, Pongamia, emerges as the undisputed winner in terms of sustainability

As a biofuel, Pongamia oil is many times better than Palm oil. Period.


  7. Corekees internal sources
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