The decision by the European Commission to approve a certification scheme for palm oil has been condemned by environmental groups, which say the biofuel is driving deforestation in Indonesia and other countries, and should be banned in the European Union.
The Commission approval of the certification scheme, put forward by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), should open the door for palm oil to be used under the Renewable Energy Directive, potentially boosting demand for it in the European market place.
But Greenpeace’s forestry campaigner, Sini Harkki, said: “The Commission’s decision is disgraceful and smacks of hypocrisy."
"One day palm oil biodiesel is dirtier than normal diesel and the next day, after a little poking by the industry, the Commission swallows its own words,” the activist said.
The environmental group further claims the EU executive ignored its own research in labelling biofuels from palm oil sustainable.
EU-commissioned studies have found that extra demand for food crops such as palm oil for the production of biofuels can have a significant impact on climate change.
Forests and peat swamps destroyed to make way for land to grow biomass for fuel can have an even worse impact on CO2 emissions than some fossil fuels, the Commission has said. An EU proposal released in October said that palm oil was one of the worst biofuel sources in terms of indirect land use change (ILUC).
Speaking at the European Advanced Biofuels Congress on Tuesday (4 December), Philip Lowe, the EU director general for energy policy, told representatives of the biofuels industry that ILUC was a "problem" and could “provoke difficulties elsewhere”, adding that it was a “major cause for concern for NGOs in the EU and elsewhere”.
But he said the current available scientific modelling on ILUC was not robust enough for the Commission to factor it into the regulatory proposal. Instead, he said, the EU executive had opted for other sustainability criteria for biomass. These include a 60% threshold on greenhouse gas savings for new biofuels installations from 2014 and a commitment to review scientific evidence on ILUC in 2017. The approval of the RSPO scheme means that certified palm oil sources can meet those sustainability criteria and therefore contribute to EU renewable energy targets.
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Robbie Blake, a biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, told EurActiv that though it may provide the EU with renewable energy, the expansion of palm oil causes significant problems in Indonesia and Malaysia, two of its biggest producers.
In an earlier a statement he had said: “Palm oil is driving deforestation, wildlife loss, community conflict and accelerating climate change. Instead of greenwashing palm oil the EU should outright ban its use as a biofuel.”
He told EurActiv it was a contradiction for the Commission to support, even indirectly, the production of the first-generation biofuel, since the latest proposal appeared to discourage their production.
Furthermore, Blake doubted the validity of the RSPO in checking that the sources of palm oil met sustainability criteria: “We’re not convinced that the RSPO is credible in ticking those boxes.”
He said, for instance, that the RSPO did not have the tools to verify that wetlands were not being drained to make way for palm crops, a practice banned under the Commission’s sustainability criteria.
Following the approval, the RSPO released a statement saying: "It is not within RSPO’s consideration to determine the allocation of palm oil for food, fuel and other uses.
"The RSPO, however, holds a firm stand that if indeed palm oil is used, it advocates that certified sustainable palm oil is prioritized as it does not contribute to the sustained destruction of valuable tropical forests or damage the interests of people, communities and nations."
But Nuša Urbancic, a campaigner with Transport & Environment, voiced similar concerns to those of Blake. “The RSPO still allows draining of peat lands and conversion of secondary forest,” she told EurActiv.
She added the Commission had put itself in a difficult position by not including stronger sustainability criteria such as ILUC in the proposal.
The clean fuels specialist said the EU should partly be held responsible for environmental and biodiversity costs that result from demand for palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia.
At the biofuels congress, Esa Härmälä, Finland’s director general for energy, while not referring specifically to Indonesia and Malaysia, appeared to dismiss the impact of ILUC, saying: “In 2020 there will be a balance of deforestation and reforestation.”
But as the Indonesian and Malaysian economies grow, so does internal demand for palm oil, which campaigners on the ground fear could lead to more and more deforestation.
“At the rate tropical peat swamp forests in places like Sarawak, Malaysia are converted to oil palm plantations – 8% per year – there won’t be any left in 2020, when the Commission foresees stronger action on ILUC,” the environmental group Wetlands International, which works in the area, said in response to the approval.
Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International (and member of the RSPO Greenhouse Gas Working Group) said: “This sustainability certification ignores and does nothing to prevent further conversion and drainage of peatlands and tropical rainforests for oil palm cultivation. It allows the EU to ‘cherry pick’ choosing the palm oil that meets the EU standard and closing its eyes to the indirect land use change caused by the business as usual of all the other oil palm plantations.”
Frédéric Eychenne, programme manager for new energies at Airbus, told EurActiv: "The RSPO says that in certain cases [palm oil] can be sustainable", adding that the airplane giant did not plan to use palm oil.
Indirect land use change (ILUC) refers to the unintentional changes in land-use as a result of the expansion of croplands for ethanol or biodiesel production.
The demand for other crops, which are moved to make way for biofuel production, is then met by the clearing of new land, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands, resulting in a depletion of the planet's carbon absorption stocks. This process is exacerbated when the forests are burned, and vast quantities of climate-warming emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.
The European Commission has run 15 studies on different biofuel crops, which on average conclude that over the next decade Europe's biofuels policies might have an indirect impact equal to 4.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark.
Some in the biofuels industry argue that the Commission's science is flawed and that the issue could be tackled by a major overhaul of agricultural strategy to improve productivity or by pressing abandoned farmland back into action. Waste products from biofuels production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources.
- 2013: Commission to publish 'Green Paper' on biofuels.