The COP26 summit invites weary indifference from the public with its sweeping promises and big data. Climate change comes more vividly alive in the harmful unintended consequences of our choices as individuals. For example, the margarine that some of us spread on toast not only pumps up CO2 emissions. It also contributes to a collapse in the population of orang-utans, the peaceable great apes of south-east Asian rainforests.

Palm oil is at the root of the problem. It is ubiquitous as an additive in processed foods and toiletries. It contains healthy unsaturated fats, keeps its physical characteristics even at high cooking temperatures and is cheap and easy to produce. That is why production has increased 30-fold in the past 50 years to more than 70m tonnes, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Farmers clear swaths of rainforest to plant oil palms in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two main producers. The commodity, the price of which recently surged to more than $1,250 a tonne, is vital to both economies.

Chart showing the annual CO2 emissions, for palm oil production in Gigatonnes (2018 estimates) for China, US, India, Russia, India, Japan, Brazil and Indonesia and for tree and peatland losses.

That explains the contradictory smoke signals last week. On Monday, Indonesia joined 127 other nations in a pledge to cease deforestation by 2030. On Wednesday, its environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar described the pact as “inappropriate and unfair”.

Global deforestation and peatland loss produces about 4.8bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, according to the World Resources Institute, more than total EU emissions. Clear cutting for palm oil is a significant contributor. This releases about 174 tonnes of carbon per hectare, according to a Swiss study.

How does our own consumption of palm oil figure in that? It is a fuzzy calculation at best, even if you exclude transport, processing and sequestration of carbon by oil palms. But over a 30-year period it approximates to a 1:1.5 ratio of palm oil to carbonised rainforest. Average per capita consumption of 8 kgs of oil per year would be outweighed by 12 kgs of CO2.

Chart showing palm oil production (tonnes, million). Figures for the world, Indonesia and Malaysia, 1961-2018.

As for the orang-utans, the key Bornean population has dropped in inverse proportion to palm oil production there, according to Project Ark, a conservation charity. Fewer than 70,000 remain today, compared with about 200,000 in the middle of the past century.

Next time you are tempted by an ice cream, remember our hairy, orange cousins in their dwindling jungle home.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of palm oil and climate change in the comments section below.

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