Parliament committee says palm oil biofuels usage should end by 2020

The Commission is being urged to cooperate with NGOs and launch information campaigns on the consequences of the “reckless” cultivation of palm oil. [CIFOR/Flickr]

MEPs adopted a report on Thursday (9 March) urging the European Commission to phase out the use of palm oil as a component of biodiesel by 2020 “at the latest”.

In November, the European Commission presented its draft proposal to review the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) for the post-2020 period as part of a Clean Energy Package (See background).

Commission admits policing biofuels according to public opinion

The European Commission’s proposal for a gradual phase-out of conventional biofuels was based on public opinion, an EU official admitted.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) stressed in the report that industry could not prove with certainty that the palm oil in their supply chain is not linked to deforestation.

“The cultivation of palm oil over the last 20 years has been the cause of 20% of all deforestation,” the EU lawmakers pointed out, adding that in 2014, 46% of all palm oil imported into Europe was used as fuel for transport representing a 34% increase compared to 2010.

The report on Palm oil and deforestation of rainforests explains that the demand for palm oil will double by 2050, causing a severe environmental impact on countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Asian countries, as well as in Africa and Latin America.

Kateřina Konečná, an MEP from the European United Left-Nordic Green Left group (GUE/NGL), commented, “According to scientific studies, biodiesel from palm oil has three times the amount of emissions of conventional diesel. We, therefore, call on the Commission to phase out the use of palm oil as a component of biodiesel by 2020.”

Ethanol makers criticise the EU’s ‘biased’ transport decarbonisation goals

The European Commission is in denial concerning the contribution of conventional ethanol to the EU’s transport decarbonisation goals post-2020, according to European ethanol producers.

“The [Parliament] Committee noted with concern that 46% of total palm oil imported by the EU is used for the production of biofuels and that this requires the use of about one million hectares of tropical soils,” Konečná told EURACTIV.COM, adding that the Commission should take measures to phase out the use of those vegetable oils that drive deforestation, including palm oil, as a component of biofuels preferably by 2020 including palm oil, but “not all first generation biofuels”.

Trade deals

Moreover, the report urges the EU executive to cooperate with NGOs and launch information campaigns on the consequences of the “reckless” cultivation of palm oil.

“The Commission should ensure that information confirming that a product is not linked to deforestation is provided to consumers by means of a special indication on the product,” the report reads.

It, also, calls on the Commission to strengthen environmental measures in its trade agreements with a view to preventing palm oil-related deforestation.

Ban of all crop-based biofuels

The Transport & Environment (T&E) NGO welcomed the report, and the European Parliament’s call to end support for biodiesel made from vegetable oils.

“These fuels have higher emissions than regular diesel and cause deforestation and peatland drainage. Truly sustainable advanced biofuels can only have a chance if the European Commission stops promoting cheap, polluting biodiesel,” T&E’s biofuels officer Cristina Mestre noted.

The NGO stressed that of all the sources of biofuel for transport, palm oil has the highest GHG emissions – 303% of the emissions of fossil diesel.

Mestre continued, saying that vegetable oils such as palm oil, rapeseed and soy work as “substitutes” for each other.

“Banning palm oil in biodiesel is not the solution because it will simply be replaced by rapeseed or soy which also produce higher emissions than regular diesel because of indirect impacts. The only real solution is to stop all incentives that artificially create demand for vegetable oils in the transport sector,” the expert added.

A step in the right direction

Reacting to the Parliament vote, the European renewable ethanol association (e-PURE) said that of a lot of the controversy surrounding biofuels is spilling over from the palm oil discussion.

Emmanuel Desplechin, Secretary General of ePURE, stressed that Europe needed sustainably-produced biofuels to meet its climate, energy and air-quality targets for transport.

EU risks missing climate goals without ‘sustainable’ biofuels, experts warn

The European Commission’s proposal to gradually phase out “sustainable” first generation biofuels will prevent the EU from meeting its 2030 climate goals, experts claim.

“So, this strong statement from the European Parliament on palm oil is a step in the right direction,” Desplechin stated, underlining that renewable EU ethanol is made from crops grown by European farmers under the most sustainable conditions in the world.

“We believe the contribution of transport fuels from palm oil and its derivatives to the share of renewables in transport should be limited until global peatland conversion is halted. By strengthening sustainability criteria for all biofuels, the EU can reduce greenhouse gases without creating environmental problems elsewhere in the world,” the ethanol expert added.

Not all biofuels are the same

In the meantime, the Transport & Environment also published a policy paper urging the Commission to completely phase out land-based biodiesel by 2025 as well as decrease the cap on all crop-based biofuels to zero by 2030.

“First generation biofuels which require large amounts of land to produce energy are not a scalable or sustainable solution to decarbonise transport. Support for land-based biofuels should be completely phased-out, especially given that EU policy does not take into account the indirect-land-use (ILUC)”, the paper reads.

James Cogan, an ethanol industry and environment analyst, told EURACTIV that the T&E report says “palm oil diesel is bad so ban all biofuels”.

“Palm oil diesel is indeed devastatingly bad.  But European ethanol is great.  It results in two-thirds less carbon emissions than petrol, is made from a small amount of Europe’s surplus starch (so no new land needed), is cheap and already works in today’s cars,” he said, adding that ethanol shouldn’t be banned.

According to Cogan, the NGO call will result, paradoxically, in more palm diesel, not less.

“That’s because good biofuels are worth keeping and policy makers will keep them. However, instead of a made-to-measure policy suppressing the bad and fostering the good, it will be a one-size-fits-all compromise with all biofuels – palm included – allowed to continue under the same low cap (like the 7% we have already),” he noted.

“That leaves the field open for palm oil to spread like wildfire because palm oil biodiesel is cheaper and easier to make than good biofuels. Despite the seemingly toxic policy sentiment towards palm diesel in recent years, investments are being made right now in Europe in new palm capacity that will increase world palm demand by 1% or more overnight,” he stressed, claiming that palm diesel will fill up the policy cap.

Nathalie Lecocq, Director General of the EU vegetable oil and proteinmeal industry association (FEDIOL), told EURACTIV, “The own initiative report on palm oil and the deforestation of rainforests has triggered an extensive and informed discussion leading to an enhanced understanding of the challenges faced by the palm oil communities and supply chains with regard to the sustainability of the palm oil production”.

“Regarding the use of palm oil and vegetable oils as biofuels, FEDIOL considers that the issue should rather be dealt with within the framework of the up-coming debate on the Renewable Energy Directive post 2020,” she said.

Kateřina Konečná, an MEP from the European United Left - Nordic Green Left group (GUE/NGL), said, “The issue of palm oil is very complex and has several ramifications. It is not just about the environment but includes issues of development, forced labour, indigenous rights, social problems, soil erosion and so on. Large multinationals play a big role in fostering these problems and they must take responsibility”.

“We would like to create an open debate for all actors involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of palm oil and its derivatives in order to find answers to the problem of sustainable palm oil production. The protection of our forests and human rights are at stake,” she emphasised.

“This is why we involved NGOs, representatives of the sectors and the main certification body - the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - in the development of the report. This is a truly balanced and practical report with strong recommendations that we want to see the Commission pursue,” the Czech MEP added.

Anita Neville from Indonesia’s largest grower of palm oil Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), stated, “The recognition that palm oil can be cultivated responsibly and can make a real contribution to the economic development of a country is important. This is after all, a food crop which in Indonesia is 40% smallholder grown”.

“The EU is a powerful source of demand for sustainable palm oil […] Policymakers should, therefore, be cautious on the creation of barriers, notably in biodiesel. Better to instead define what you would like to see, set realistic targets and ultimately act as that crucial source of sustainable demand,” she added.

In November, the European Commission presented its draft proposal to review the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) for the post-2020 period as part of a Clean Energy Package.

The executive proposed reducing the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030. It also set an obligation to raise the share of other ‘low emissions fuels’ such as renewable electricity and advanced biofuels in transport to 6.8%.

The Commission’s change of heart on conventional or first generation biofuels has sparked heated discussions in Brussels.

Commission under fire over post-2020 biofuels targets

The European Commission came under heavy criticism yesterday (30 November) after proposing to phase-out conventional biofuels by 2030.

  • 3-6 April 2017: The report is due for a parliamentary vote in the plenary

Subscribe to our newsletters