Report warns EU about increased imports of palm oil in disguise

“The EU needs to limit the use of UCO to avoid doing more harm than good,” T&E emphasised. [Shutterstock/Rich Carey]

The imports of Used Cooking Oil (UCO) intended for the decarbonisation of EU transport are expected to significantly rise, a new report has found. However, the report also called on the EU to put limits on its use, considering its controversial origin and its hidden links to palm oil.

Used Cooking Oils (UCO) are considered waste-based and are double-counted under the EU’s renewable energy directive to decarbonise Europe’s transport sector. But the current directive does not distinguish between domestically collected oils and those imported from third countries.

Critics also suggest some of those oils contain palm oil, which the EU has decided to phase out in order to slow deforestation in tropical countries.

New fraud investigation casts doubt over used cooking oil origins

A fresh biofuels fraud investigation in the Netherlands has once again shone a spotlight on the origin of imported used cooking oil (UCO) in the EU. 

According to a report published on Wednesday (21 April) by environmental NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), China supplies more than a third (34%) of Europe’s UCO imports while almost a fifth (19%) comes from major palm oil producers Malaysia and Indonesia, combined.

“Europe’s increased thirst for used cooking oil to power its transport sector is outstripping the amount leftover from the continent’s kitchens. This leaves us reliant on a waste product being shipped from the other side of the world,” said Cristina Mestre, biofuels manager at T&E.

Mestre added that countries that would use UCO for animal feed and other products may end up exporting theirs while using cheap oil, like palm, at home.

“The EU needs to limit the use of UCO to avoid doing more harm than good,” she emphasised.

It is not the first time that imported UCO’s origins raise eyebrows in Brussels.

Already in June 2019, a biofuel industry source told EURACTIV that one-third of the UCO used in Europe’s biofuels market is more than likely fraudulent.

Industry source: one third of used cooking oil in Europe is fraudulent

One-third of the used cooking oil (UCO) used in Europe’s biofuels market is more than likely fraudulent, a source from the biofuel industry has told EURACTIV.com and urged Brussels to “think again” about how the entire supply chain is monitored.

Moreover, the UK and the Netherlands have launched official investigations into companies that have allegedly been selling unsustainable UCO containing palm oil.

In addition, in September 2020 the EU Ombudsman launched a process over the European Commission’s refusal to grant public access to documents regarding the origin and amount of UCO reported by all voluntary certification schemes for biofuels sustainability under the Renewable Energy Directive.

A stricter approach?

The European Commission has admitted that it does not have a “complete overview” of the origin of used cooking oils used for the production of biodiesel consumed in the EU but wishes to tighten the rules in the revision of the relevant legislation.

Contacted by EURACTIV, EU waste biodiesel producers (EWABA) said that in the next few weeks, the Commission will publish a draft implementing act on revised standards for certification schemes, tightening controls along all biofuels’ supply chain.

“EU certification schemes will have to comply with these stricter schemes as from the transposition deadline of the REDII this June. The improvements to certification schemes are partially based on industry’s input regarding possible weak spots in the supply chain. This imminent set of measures will significantly enhance verification,” EWABA said in an emailed response.

EWABA stressed that the EU is currently developing a pan-EU track and trace database which goes well beyond the narrow scope included in the existing legislation: all trading, certification and sustainability data on all biofuels and bioliquids traded in the EU will have to be registered with a database controlled by the European Commission.

“In the case of waste feedstocks, the scope of the database will start at the feedstock’s point of origin. This database will start operating in a pilot phase in October and it will be progressively improved until it becomes fully operational and compulsory in late 2022,” EWABA added.

Doublecounting under question

The double-counting of renewables in the transport sector has been drawing criticism for a long time.

T&E acknowledged that double-counting distorts the real numbers on the amount of renewables used in transport (which in this case drives up the value of UCO), and it said they are concerned about the ability to reach the transport targets without using these kinds of “accounting tricks”.

“We are currently developing our position on transport targets for REDIII,” T&E told EURACTIV.

“For us, it is essential that targets can be reached in a sustainable way, understanding the amounts of sustainable renewable energy that we can count on, rather than having too high targets without proper sustainability safeguards that drive up the use of unsustainable biofuels,” the NGO added.

On the other hand, EWABA’s Secretary-General Angel Alberdi insists that double counting should be maintained irrespective of UCO’s country of origin.

“It has proven the right policy mechanism to promote difficult feedstocks such as wastes and residues – it has in fact created the industry. Without double counting you would get cheaper conventional biodiesel from food and feed crops with lower GHG emissions,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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