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E.U. may ban palm oil biodiesel

E.U. may restrict palm oil biodiesel due to environmental concerns

E.U. may ban palm oil biodiesel
Rhett A. Butler,
January 15, 2008

The E.U. may ban imports of certain biofuel feedstocks that damage the environment, reports The New York Times. While Europe aims to supply 10 percent of all vehicle fuel from biofuels by 2020, environmentalists say some biofuels like palm oil are driving the destruction of biologically-rich rainforests and may produce more emissions than conventional fossil fuels.

According to an early draft of law to be unveiled last week, the European Union will ban biofuels derived from crops grown on some sensitive ecosystems, including tropical forests, wetlands and grasslands as of January 2008. The proposal will also require biofuels used in Europe to deliver “a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings.” The decision could especially hurt soy production in the Brazilian cerrado and palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil producers expressed concern over the plans.

“The Malaysian government is very concerned about the E.U. scheme for sustainability of biofuels,” said Zainuddin Hassan, the manager in Europe for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in Brussels, told The New York Times. The measures “should not be a trade barrier to the palm oil industry and it should comply with the W.T.O. rules as well.” The Malaysian Palm Oil Council was recently reprimanded by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for running “misleading ads” that portrayed palm oil as an eco-friendly product. Studies have shown that one ton of palm oil produced on tropical peatlands generates 15 to 70 tons of CO2.

Still it is unclear whether the E.U.’s proposed changes will address indirect environmental effects of biofuel production. For example, U.S. subsidies for corn ethanol have been linked to forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon, though little American ethanol reaches export markets.

The proposed restrictions may create a new market for “eco-friendly” certified biofuels. Already industry-driven initiatives in southeast Asia (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and the Amazon (under the soy moratorium by the Brazilian Vegetable Oil Industry Association and the Brazilian Grain Exporters Association) are working towards a framework on sustainable production of energy crops. Analysts say second generation biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol derived from farm waste and wood, could offer better environmental performance than present feedstocks.

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Leading biofuels wreak environmental havoc Biofuels made from world’s dominant energy crops — including corn, soy, and oil palm — may have worse environment impacts than conventional fossil fuels, reports a study published in the journal Science.

Biodiesel demand could destroy world’s forests. Growing demand for biodiesel could drive large-scale forest conversion for energy crops, warns a study published in Conservation Biology. With petroleum supplies expected to peak in the next 5-30 years and growing concern over climate change, biodiesel production may expand by 100-fold by 2050, estimates Lian Pin Koh, a researcher from Princeton University. Koh says that much of this expansion could come at the expense of forests, but the degree of which depends on the feedstocks used. Energy crops like palm oil are significantly more productive than more widely used rapeseed — which currently accounts for 84 percent of biodiesel production — but are more likely to be established in carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems like the tropical forests of southeast Asia. As such, the environmental trade-off between feedstocks is complex.

Is the oil-palm industry using global warming to mislead the public? Members of the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission are distributing materials that misrepresent the carbon balance of oil-palm plantations, according to accounts from people who have seen presentations by commission members. These officials are apparently arguing that oil-palm plantations store and sequester many times the amount of CO2 as natural forests, and therefore that converting forests for plantations is the best way to fight climate change. In making such claims, these Indonesian representatives evidently are ignoring data that show the opposite, putting the credibility of the oil-palm industry at risk, and undermining efforts to slow deforestation and rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. corn subsidies drive Amazon destruction. U.S. corn subsidies for ethanol production are contributing to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, reports a tropical forest scientist writing in this week’s issue of the journal Science. Dr. William Laurance, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says that a recent spike in Amazonian forest fires may be linked to U.S. subsidies that promote American corn production for ethanol over soy production. The shift from soy to corn has led to a near doubling in soy prices during the past 14 months. High prices are, in turn, driving conversion of rainforest and savanna in Brazil for soy expansion.

Dutch: no subsidies for biofuels-driven rainforest destruction. The Dutch government will exclude palm oil from “green energy” subsidies as growing evidence suggests that palm oil is often less sustainable than advertised.

Does palm oil alleviate rural poverty in Malaysia?. While it is often argued that the economic benefits of oil palm plantations outweigh the environmental costs of converting biodiverse ecosystems to monocultures, new analysis suggests that the role of plantations in reducing rural poverty may be overstated.

Cooking oil, palm oil biodiesel can reduce emissions relative to diesel. A lifecycle analysis of biodiesel by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) shows that using palm oil derived from existing plantations can be an effective biofuel feedstock for reducing greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional diesel fuel. However, palm oil sourced from rainforest and peatlands generating emissions 8 to 21 times greater than those from diesel.

Biodiesel may worsen global warming relative to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel made from rapeseed could increase rather than reduce greenhouse emissions compared to conventional diesel fuels, reports a new study published in the journal Chemistry & Industry. Overall the researchers found that petroleum diesel and rapeseed biodiesel, presently the main biofuel used across Europe, have a similar environmental impact. The results suggest that efforts to mitigate climate change through the adoption of rapeseed biodiesel may be of little use beyond energy security.

Dutch plan restricts biofuels that damage environment. The Netherlands has proposed a system to reduce the environmental impact of biofuels production. The country becomes the first in the world to establish such guidelines. Environmentalists have expressed increasing concern for the establishment of energy crops in biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems like the peatlands of Indonesia and the Amazon rainforest. They say that conversion of these forests for oil palm and soybeans is threatening endangered species and worsening global warming. Further, they warn, demand for such biomass energy products is driving up prices for food crops.

Dutch will demand rainforest-friendly palm oil. In a report scheduled to be released today, the Dutch government will outline criteria for growing biofuels in a more sustainable manner. The guidelines will be closely watched by the rest of Europe, which is currently struggling with the environmental pros and cons of large-scale energy crop production, especially in ecologically-sensitive areas like the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests.

Palm oil doesn’t have to be bad for the environment. As traditionally practiced in southeast Asia, oil palm cultivation is responsible for widespread deforestation that reduces biodiversity, degrades important ecological services, worsens climate change, and traps workers in inequitable conditions sometimes analogous to slavery. This doesn’t have to be the case. Following examples set forth by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and firms like Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil producer, oil palm can be cultivated in a manner that helps mitigate climate change, preserves biodiversity, and brings economic opportunities to desperately poor rural populations.

Eco-friendly palm oil could help alleviate poverty in Indonesia. The Associated Press (AP) recently quoted Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, as saying palm oil is a failure as a biofuel. This would be a misleading statement and one that doesn’t help efforts to devise a workable solution to the multiplicity of issues surrounding the use of palm oil.

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