Short‐ and long‐term carbon emissions from oil palm plantations converted from logged tropical peat swamp forest

Jon McCalmont* (Corresponding Author), Lip Khoon Kho, Yit Arn Teh, Kennedy Lewis, Melanie Chocholek, Elisa Rumpang, Timothy Hill

*Corresponding author for this work

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Need for regional economic development and global demand for agro-industrial commodities have resulted in large-scale conversion of forested landscapes to industrial agriculture across South East Asia. However, net emissions of CO2 from tropical peatland conversions may be significant and remain poorly quantified, resulting in controversy around the magnitude of carbon release following conversion. Here we present long-term, whole ecosystem monitoring of carbon exchange from two oil palm plantations on converted tropical peat swamp forest. Our sites compare a newly converted oil palm plantation (OPnew) to a mature oil palm plantation (OPmature) and combine them in the context of existing emission factors. Mean annual net emission (NEE) of CO2 measured at OPnew during the conversion period (137.8 Mg CO2 ha−1 year−1) was an order of magnitude lower during the measurement period at OPmature (17.5 Mg CO2 ha−1 year−1). However, mean water table depth (WTD) was shallower (0.26 m) than a typical drainage target of 0.6 m suggesting our emissions may be a conservative estimate for mature plantations, mean WTD at OPnew was more typical at 0.54 m. Reductions in net emissions were primarily driven by increasing biomass accumulation into highly productive palms. Further analysis suggested annual peat carbon losses of 24.9 Mg CO2-C ha−1 year−1 over the first 6 years, lower than previous estimates for this early period from subsidence studies, losses reduced to 12.8 Mg CO2-C ha−1 year−1 in the later, mature phase. Despite reductions in NEE and carbon loss over time, the system remained a large net source of carbon to the atmosphere after 12 years with the remaining 8 years of a typical plantation's rotation unlikely to recoup losses. These results emphasize the need for effective protection of tropical peatlands globally and strengthening of legislative enforcement where moratoria on peatland conversion already exist.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2361-2376
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Early online date2 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

The authors thank the Director-General of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) for permission to publish these results. This study was carried out as part of a wider tropical peat research collaboration between MPOB, University of Exeter, University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University, and they thank the Sarawak Oil Palm Berhard (SOPB) for their help and support during the project.

Data Availability Statement

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


  • carbon emission
  • carbon stocks
  • ecosystem carbon exchange
  • eddy covariance
  • land-use change
  • oil palm plantation
  • peatland drainage
  • tropical peatland conversion


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