Despite government pledges to rein in deforestation, Indonesia is on track to release vast amounts of greenhouse gases over the next decade as its burgeoning palm oil industry churns under carbon-rich peat and cuts down its rainforest.

According to a new study by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities, emissions from the palm oil industry alone could release 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide -- more than the national emissions of Canada -- by 2020.

The study adds doubt to a compact made in 2011 between Norway and Indonesia in which the two nations pledged $1 billion to curb the latter's carbon release. It is also one of the most comprehensive depictions of the problem to come out of a country where records are sparse and civic bodies seldom enjoy reputations of transparency.

Deforestation in Indonesia is particularly problematic from a climate perspective because the local flora holds so much carbon, said project leader Lisa Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

"When you're talking about clearing the land, it matters what land you're clearing," she said. "Some of the most carbon-rich, high-biomass rainfall areas in the world are in Indonesia."

Its peat swamps are considered a significant carbon sink for the planet, but have in at least two instances in recent history become a carbon source due to draining and fires.

Clearing a patch of soy crops from the soil might remove about 85 tons of carbon per hectare, she explained. Removing peat, on the other hand, could mean the loss of 250 to 350 tons.

A cash crop with big environmental implications
Much of Indonesia's proposed policy centers on a plan to site new plantations on already degraded land, thus sparing the need for further forest clearing. But without clear parameters, that designation can easily be skewed, Curran said.

Between 1990 and 2010, roughly half of all new plantations sprang up on previously forested land, according to the Stanford-Yale study. After studying high-resolution satellite imagery and compiling records from local and regional government agencies, the authors concluded that all land leased for palm oil production in Indonesia added up to an area the size of Greece.

So far, only about 20 percent of those leased lands have been developed, they found.

Palm oil is one of the more ubiquitous additives in processed foods and is a common ingredient used in kitchens from tropical Africa to Indonesia and Brazil. Increasingly, it is used in the commercial food industry due to its high content of saturated fat, and it has even been tested as a potential biofuel.

Economic reforms in the late 1990s helped encourage production through the designation of land, decentralization of control over land-use licensing and a subsidization credit to smaller shareholders.

Despite a tight cap on ownership, however, most of the country's plantations are now controlled by a conglomeration of a few owners with stock in many holdings. The average plantation lease, according to Curran, is the size of Manhattan.

Profit margins have risen in recent years due to pressure from global demand, and the sector's expansion has grown steeply. The trend has raised alarm bells among conservation groups and global warming advocates, who have banded together to press the Indonesian government toward reforms.

Curran said she hopes the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which will be chaired by Indonesia in 2013, will help bring focus to the issue.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500