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Suhadi wanted to tell the lawmakers the same thing he told them in two previous visits to Capitol Hill: that the palm trade, driven by American investment, is slowly killing his country. “It’s important for you to understand that all acts of deforestation in Indonesia start with a signature,” he said. “And more than a little of it starts right here.” He was not confident that he would be heard — the last time he visited Washington, lawmakers chewed up their time asking him about water buffalo in his village. But still he felt compelled to speak.

From Washington, Suhadi traveled to San Francisco to attend a climate march and address a group of hedge-fund investors. Just down the street, Michael Bloomberg implored strong immediate action on emissions reductions at the Global Climate Action Summit, one of the nation’s largest gatherings on climate goals. But the conference was light on substance when it came to the subject of forests. There was scarcely any mention of peatland at all.

When Nancy Pelosi took the stage, she looked back on the 2007 fuel-economy bill and biofuels mandate she shepherded into law. The initiative should be credited, she said, with “charting a new path to clean energy, reducing emissions, increasing the use of renewables.” She made no mention of Indonesia. When I asked her about the deforestation in an earlier email, her office wrote back defending the bill, citing the Union of Concerned Scientists and arguing that even with the Indonesian forest effect accounted for, biodiesels were cleaner than fossil fuels. “Bottom line,” the office responded, “the biofuels in your tank are better for the planet than 100 percent fossil fuels.”

Henry Waxman, of course, doesn’t agree. He said Congress was so focused on domestic climate policy that it failed to see the repercussions of those policies around the world — repercussions that now seem obvious. “We’ve created a situation that is so contrary to what we had hoped for,” he said. “We’re doing more harm to the environment. It was a mistake.”

The advanced cellulosic-biofuels program that once seemed so promising has been a failure. It never attracted the investment it needed, and the E.P.A. has allowed biodiesel to serve as a substitute in meeting the mandate. President Trump has wandered into the renewable-fuels-standard debate, too, and found himself caught in a thicket, at one moment poised to reform the fuel standard completely and the very next snagged by the interest of a powerful agriculture industry grown accustomed to its enormous benefit. The result is likely to be at least a near-term doubling down on American biofuels use, no matter the cost.

It may no longer be possible to slow the momentum behind Indonesia’s palm markets. Sitting in the lavish dining room of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Jakarta in July, over an awkward meal of mushroom consommé and blanched scallops, officials from Indonesia’s Palm Oil Development Fund made a case for their industry. I asked how important the American biofuels mandate has been, given that other countries buy more Indonesian palm oil than Americans do. The answer was unequivocal: It’s what got Indonesian palm off the ground. “The U.S. is not only a market,” said Ruddy Gobel, the chief political adviser to the director. “It also sets the global agenda.” Now, according to the Indonesian development officials, 80 million Indonesians depend economically on palm oil, and nearly half the industry consists of individual landowners like the people in Kotawaringin. “If you pull out biofuel, the whole system will collapse,” said Dono Boestami, the fund’s director.

In perhaps the final turn of the life cycle, Indonesia is now working to become its own largest customer. In 2016, it instituted a 20 percent biofuels mandate for its domestic fuels, and this August, it extended that mandate to cover railways and power generation too. Then it upped the pressure further, simply making it compulsory that Indonesians buy and use biodiesel. Officials offer a simple justification for this push: Under the Paris climate accord, they say, converting Indonesia to renewable fuels is the only way the country can meet its own climate goals.

The central problem, of course, is that the goals of Paris — slowing planetary warming just enough to allow humans time to adapt to excruciating and inevitable changes, including flooding coastlines, stronger hurricanes and perpetual famine and drought — are unlikely to ever be achieved without stopping deforestation. The planet’s forests have the potential to sequester as much as a third of the carbon in the air. Right now deforestation globally contributes 15 percent of the planet’s total emissions, the same as all the cars and trucks and trains across the globe. On paper, biodiesel is a way to make all those modes of transportation produce less carbon. But in the world as it is, that calculation is far more likely to lead to catastrophe.

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Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe.
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