The European Parliament adopted a resolution on Tuesday (4 April) calling the Commission to phase-out the use of biofuels based on vegetable oils by 2020, and establish a single certification scheme to guarantee only sustainably produced palm oil enters the EU market.
Environmentalist NGOs said the resolution was in the right direction, while the ethanol industry grabbed the chance to reiterate its demand for a “balanced policy solution” that would differentiate biofuels according to their greenhouse and sustainability credentials.
Humans consume over twice the amount of palm oil today than at the turn of the century. As a result, palm oil plantations are responsible for 20% of the deforestation that has occurred over the last two decades.
Palm oil’s catastrophic effects
The consequences are ever more stark and visible for the main producers of the oil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Biodiversity has been destroyed, residents have been displaced from their land and peat swamps, which are essential to locking in carbon dioxide, are shrinking by the day.
“While in Europe and the United States obesity is on the up because of excessive consumption of palm oil, especially in the form of Nutella, suffering increases in Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa, particularly (of) nature,” warned the S&D group’s French MEPs. Working conditions on the plantations are also constantly under fire.
But despite this, palm oil has so far escaped all attempts to be regulated under the European legal framework. Czech GUE/NGL rapporteur Kateřina Konečná (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy) has called on the EU to change this in her report on palm oil and rainforest deforestation, adopted today by a large majority of her colleagues.
The report calls for measures to be taken against land conflicts, forced- and child labour, and to review the impact of indirect land use change (ILUC). A sticking point remains the production of biofuels. Currently, the EU burns 46% of palm oil imports as fuel.
A single certification scheme
The report calls for a uniform certification scheme for palm oil imports by 2020 that would ensure biofuels do not contain vegetable oil whose production has contributed to deforestation.
Some palm oil producing countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia and Colombia, have attempted to prevent such measures and called upon members of the Parliament in a letter to vote down the report.
Indonesia’s largest palm oil producer, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), has voiced its opposition to such limitations. “The EU is already driving responsible production through demand for sustainable production,” said GAR chairwoman Anita Neville. “I believe that the EU can achieve much more by championing sustainable development.”
Friends of the Earth (FoEE), an international association of environmental organisations, welcomed the development. “The experience of recent years has shown that industry self-regulation and voluntary measures alone cannot stop deforestation and the exploitation of people,” the FoEE said in a statement. Important certification systems have implemented weak standards and have been lightly enforced.
But not everyone is reaching for the champagne just yet. German GUE/NGL MEP Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke) was not won over by the report but acknowledged it is a “step in the right direction”.
She insisted that the EU’s policy towards biofuels has to change. “The expert studies commissioned by the EU executive and internal evaluations show that biofuels produced using palm oil, soya and rapeseed oil cause more harmful emissions that fossil fuels such as diesel,” Ernst warned. In order to achieve an EU target of 10% renewable energy in transport fuels by 2020, millions of hectares of monoculture are required.
How this will be achieved remains unclear. In 2014, 45% of EU palm oil consumption went into biodiesel. A further 34% was used in processed food, 16% for the production of electricity and heating, 3% for chemicals and 2% into animal feed production.
In South-east Asia, an area the size of Wales is required for the production of EU biodiesel. That is 21,000 square kilometres of land. The European Parliament and the Council should do away with biofuel policy, insisted Ernst. Instead, massive investment should be made in the expansion of public transport.
German S&D MEP Susanne Melior (SPD) supported the resolution and its stance against deforestation, as well as the contamination of soil and water as a result of monoculture production, thanks to pesticides and fertilisers. “The rights of local communities are often violated when palm oil plantations are set up and managed,” warned Melior. “The Commission must develop an action plan that creates socially-correct conditions,” the lawmaker said.
“We are calling for a compulsory certification system to be put in place that is modelled after the cocoa sector, with uniform criteria for sustainable production,” 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 (See background).
The ethanol industry reacted strongly, claiming that the Commission put all biofuels in the same box, despite having a different environmental footprint.
The European renewable ethanol association (ePURE) stressed that the Parliament’s “strong” statement on palm oil is a step in the right direction.
“We call on the European Parliament to translate its position into binding requirements and limit the contribution of transport fuels from palm oil and its derivatives to the share of renewables in transport in the Renewable Energy Directive II until peatland drainage is halted,” said ePURE’s Secretary General Emmanuel Desplechin.
He added that Europe needed sustainably produced biofuels to meet its climate and energy targets for transport.
“European ethanol delivers as much as 64% GHG savings compared to fossil fuel and is produced 99.7% from European crops – it is not responsible for any of the concerns associated with palm oil cultivation,” he stressed, adding that a balanced policy solution would seek to differentiate biofuels according to their greenhouse and sustainability credentials.
“Phasing out all crop-based biofuels would unfairly throw under the bus many sustainable low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels, including European ethanol,” Desplechin concluded.
Sebastien Risso, Greenpeace EU forest policy director, said, “The Parliament is right to recognise the huge responsibility that the EU has to stop deforestation, and how important this is for climate action and sustainable development. We are at one minute to midnight – the European Commission must not lose more time in putting forward an EU action plan to make Europe a deforestation-free economy and turn the tide on global forest destruction”.
The European Commission published a European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility on 20 July, emphasising the need to decarbonise the transport sector as part of an EU-wide goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030.
The transport sector currently accounts for 25% of Europe’s total GHG emissions, according to the EU executive.
The Commission proposed a “limited” role for food-based biofuels in decarbonising the transport sector and said those should no longer receive support after 2020.
The executive stressed that food-based biofuels should be gradually phased out and replaced with “more advanced biofuels” which do not compete with food crops – like wood residues or organic waste – or crops grown specifically for energy.