Estimating the relative environmental footprints of palm oil and potential alternatives

This project, a collaboration between RSPB, UNEP-WCMC, BirdLife International and The University of Cambridge department of Plant Sciences, aims to produce the first assessment of the relative environmental costs of vegetable oil production across all the world’s production systems, to identify particularly damaging or benign production systems, and to allow comparison of environmental costs between crops and regions. It will then relate this assessment to current EU consumption and consider whether consumption could be met in a less environmentally damaging way by more strategic sourcing. The results will be combined with those of a previous Collaborative Fund project on the effects of certification to develop policy recommendations for the sustainable sourcing of oil crops.

This project is funded by the CCI Collaborative Fund for Conservation.

Project Aims

Industrialized countries are major net importers of biodiversity and other environmental impacts, such as carbon and water stress, from developing tropical countries through the import of commodities. The production of vegetable oil for consumption, including palm oil, is a key contributor to these impacts, and the European Union is a major consumer. However, the environmental impact of growing oil crops varies depending on crop and growing location. We aim to create a 'footprint' of the environmental impact of supplying the EU vegetable oil market, and to evaluate how oil sourcing could be changed in order to reduce that impact.

Key Activities

  • Assess the biodiversity, carbon and water impacts of growing one tonne of vegetable oil (palm oil, soybean, sunflower, rape, groundnut, olive, jatropha) from each crop-by-country production system, using a GIS approach and overlaying existing datasets. The results will be combined to create a metric of overall environmental impact.
  • Identify the sources and country of origin of vegetable oil imports into the EU.
  • Combine these two strands to estimate the current environmental cost of the EU’s vegetable oil imports and develop a policy-relevant assessment of any potential options to reduce these impacts through improved sourcing practices.


The results of the project will be used to inform the debate surrounding the relative costs and benefits of production systems like oil palm by placing its production in a wider context and comparing its impacts with possible alternatives. They will be shared with the Carbon Disclosure Project’s forests programme, which provides recommendations to companies and policy makers on improving the sustainability of their supply chains. They will also be shared with the BirdLife office in Brussels to feed into their work with the EU to develop more sustainable sourcing.

CCI partners Involved

BirdLife International is a strategic global partnership of conservation organisations in over 100 countries, working to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, and to promote...
The Department of Plant Sciences' research spans plant and microbial sciences. Conservation-related work in the department includes forest ecology and conservation, tropical ecology, mathematical...
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. It is the largest wildlife conservation organisation in...
The UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is the specialist biodiversity assessment arm of the United Nations Environment Programme, the world’s foremost intergovernmental...

Project blog posts

8 Oct 2018
The following blog is written by Fiona Sanderson, Senior Conservation Scientist on International Agriculture, RSPB (Project lead for the CCI Collaborative Fund project 'Estimating the relative...