After years of controversy and delay, the European Commission yesterday made a definitive verdict on biofuel from palm oil – and it was not the verdict producers of the fuel wanted to hear.
The Commission concluded that the cultivation of palm oil, mostly undertaken in Indonesia and Malaysia, results in excessive deforestation. It should therefor not be eligible to count toward EU renewable transport targets for national governments.
Such a ban on counting toward the target – a 32% share of renewable energy by 2030 – will almost certainly result in a phase-out of the fuel’s use in Europe.
Though it was initially heralded as the main tool by which the EU could decarbonise road transport and given generous subsidies under the bloc’s Renewable Energy Directive over a decade ago, the feeling about traditional biofuels has since changed.
There has been increasing evidence that biofuels from agricultural crops take up land that would otherwise be used for growing food, which has had an effect on food prices. Studies have shown it is also causing growers to raze forests, which results in more carbon in the air. Environmentalists have been pushing the EU to ban these crop-based biofuels and move instead to incentivising “second-generation” biofuels made from things like algae.
Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green member of the European Parliament who is running to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the next Commission president, has been on the forefront of the campaign to ditch first-generation biofuels.
“The vital mobilisation and efforts of thousands citizens who have voiced concerns we have seen over the last few weeks over the damaging effects of mass palm oil production on forests, animal habitats and the environment, seems to have paid off,” he said after the Commission released it’s decision.
“Burning food for fuel is nonsense and has a huge impact on climate change and biodiversity. Today’s decision sets the tone that Europeans want to shift away from unsustainable biofuels.”
He added that should he win the presidency in May’s European election, he would go further by banning more crop-based biofuels from the EU’s renewable energy scheme.
“Soy oil is the new palm oil. The Commission’s own estimates show that at least 8% of global soybean expansion caused direct deforestation since 2008. This is in complete contradiction with the EU’s commitment to halt deforestation by 2020.”
However the Commission’s analysis concluded that soy is far less harmful. While 45% of the expansion of palm oil production since 2008 led to destruction of forests, wetlands or peatlands, this was true for only 8% of soybeans and 1% of sunflowers and rapeseed.
Southeast Asian Fightback
The Commission’s decision is going to get significant pushback from the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia. The former has threatened a World Trade Organization challenge, and the latter has threatened to restrict European imports if palm oil is banned.
In an effort to address the concerns of these two countries, the Commission has added a number of exemptions which mean some palm oil could still be promoted as a green fuel, under certain conditions.
The Commission would allow additional palm oil production coming from yield increases or produced on so-called unused land to still qualify as green. However anti-hunger campaigners have pointed out that such unused land is often used by local communities to support themselves. The text also provides a derogation for palm oil produced by small farmers.
Environmental and anti-hunger groups say they will fight to get rid of these exemptions and expand the ban to other crop-based fuels. “This is only a partial victory since soy and some palm oil can still be labelled green,” said Laura Buffet, clean fuels manager at the NGO Transport & Environment. “This campaign is not over and we’ll be taking the fight to those governments and oil companies that want to keep forcing drivers to pay for fake green fuels.”
The European Biodiesel Board, which represents producers of the fuel, has complained that the Commission has not engaged in enough conclusive research before restricting the fuel. “A proper impact assessment is needed from the Commission together with the delegated act, since this element is a crucial one to understand what quantities of low ILUC-risk biofuels may be certified in the future,” the association said in a statement.
The conclusions on palm oil could, in theory, be changed by the next European Commission taking office in Autumn. The composition of this Commission will depend on the European election taking place in May.