EU: rainforests can be converted to palm oil plantations for biofuel production

Rhett A. Butler,
February 04, 2010

The European Union may be planning to classify oil palm plantations as forests, raising fears among environmental groups of expanded conversion of tropical rainforests for biofuel production, reports the EUobserver, which cites a leaked document from the European Commission.

The draft document [PDF] shows that policymakers are considering language that would specifically allow use of biofuels produced via conversion of rainforests to oil palm plantations.

"Continuously forested areas are defined as areas where trees have reached, or can reach, at least heights of 5 meters, making up a crown cover of more than 30%," states the document in laying out its definition of forest. "They would normally include forest, forest plantations and other tree plantations such as palm oil. Short rotation coppice may qualify if it fulfils the height and canopy cover criteria."

"This means, for example, that a change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the [sustainability] criterion. A change form short rotation coppice to annual agricultural crops could constitute a breach of the criterion."

The regulations would allow the conversion of rainforest to oil palm plantations but not annual crops like corn, soy, or rapeseed. In other words, it appears to open a gaping loophole in its sustainability criteria.

Environmental groups quickly condemned the plan.

"This leaked document shows the disgraceful attempts to push palm oil through European laws designed to prevent destruction of the world's forests," said Adrian Bebb, agrofuels campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, in a statement. "Allowing the expansion of palm plantations to fuel cars and lorries in Europe will have a devastating impact on the climate, biodiversity and the people who depend on forests."

Oil palm plantation in Sumatra

Rainforest in Borneo

Oil palm plantation and logged-over forest in Borneo.
"If the incoming Commission is serious about tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss it needs to clean up the biofuels legacy and urgently ensure that forests are not sacrificed to fuel cars."

The text contains language about protecting biodiversity and avoiding conversion of land with high carbon stock, but these safeguards are subsequently undermined by the palm oil provision.

The leaked document suggests that lobbying efforts by the palm oil industry are paying off. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), the state-backed marketing arm of Malaysia's palm oil industry, and the Indonesian equivalent, the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI), have sent several delegations to Europe over the past two years. MPOC has also retained GPlus, an international lobbying outfit, according to the EUobserver, and launched an aggressive PR campaign through advertisements, editorials, blogs, web sites, and new pro-palm oil NGOs. The campaign, which downplays environmental concerns of palm oil expansion and touts the crop's high yield and profitability, has proven controversial. Last year Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a group that regulates advertisements, banned an MPOC spot for making false claims about the sustainability of palm oil.

Environmental groups and scientists say that oil palm production has driven large-scale destruction of rainforests across southeast Asia over the past two decades, triggering the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions and imperiling rare species, including the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. The palm oil industry maintains that its crop is highly productive, requiring less land and costing less than other oilseeds like soy and canola, and has improved living standards for millions. Industry representatives have tended to dismiss environmental concerns as "colonialism" or masked trade barriers.

Should it be approved next month, the Commission document would lend support to Indonesia's recently announced plan to establish millions of hectares of oil palm plantations as part of its national climate change action plan. While details of the initiative remain scarce, environmentalists fear that plantation expansion would come at the expense of Indonesia's increasingly endangered native forests. Indonesia is seeking outside funding — including carbon finance — to underwrite the scheme.

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Rhett A. Butler, (February 04, 2010).

EU: rainforests can be converted to palm oil plantations for biofuel production.