Palm fruit. Photo by Rhett Butler.
The European Commission has approved palm oil-based biodiesel for the renewable fuels standard provided it is certified under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production. The move, which could dramatically boost sales of palm oil in Europe, was sharply criticized by environmental activists, who said that without stronger safeguards, increased palm oil production could increase deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
The European Commission ruled on the controversial issue last Friday, concluding that RSPO-certified palm oil will comply with the renewable fuels standard, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuels. The decision means that palm oil-based biodiesel produced under RSPO criteria will win favorable treatment relative to other crop-based biofuels. The renewable energy directive aims to more than double the EU’s use of crop-based biofuels by 2020, despite many experts warning that crop-based biofuels do not effectively cut emissions.
With its high yield and profitability, palm oil has emerged over the past two decades as a major source of vegetable oil. But the crop’s rapid expansion has taken a heavy toll on tropical forests, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the world’s two leading producers. Research has shown that over half of new plantations established since 1990 have occurred at the expense of natural forests in the two countries, driving substantial greenhouse gas emissions and threatening endangered wildlife including orangutans.
The RSPO emerged as a response to these concerns. It aims to reduce the environmental impact of palm oil production by setting standards for avoiding conversion of high conservation value forest and reducing pollution and pesticide use. Sales have grown rapidly since the first shipment of RSPO-certified palm oil reached Europe in 2008.
Yet the initiative has not been without controversy and some warn that “loopholes” in the certification process could lead to increased conversion of carbon-dense peatlands and rainforests.
Forest conversion for oil palm in Borneo (top) and an oil palm plantation from the ground (bottom). Photos by Rhett Butler.
“Under the [European Commission]-approved RSPO RED scheme, a palm oil company that has both plantations that meet the EU standard as well as plantations that do not meet these standards (e.g. plantations on peat) can sell its palm oil from the eligible plantations as ‘sustainable’ biofuel to the EU and continue with business as usual on the other plantations,” said Wetlands International in a statement. “They could even expand their plantations on peatlands. This sustainability certification is therefore not helping in any way to reduce emissions, but allowing and could even encourage a pick-and-choose strategy that will enhance indirect land use change (ILUC), resulting in the continued destruction of tropical forests and peatlands.”
Another issue is that the RSPO hasn’t yet adopted criteria for greenhouse gas accounting, a point raised recently by a group of scientists who wrote to the body calling for it to include carbon standards in its revised “Principles and Criteria”.
“Palm oil cannot be considered sustainable without also having greenhouse gas standards,” stated the letter, which was signed by ten prominent scientists from institutions around the world. The letter went on to call for “complete” bans on future plantings on peatlands and in high carbon stock forests.
“Without these critical requirements, RSPO standards are not enough for businesses to rely on to meet zero deforestation and low-carbon supply chain commitments and the standards cannot be considered truly ‘sustainable.'”
Given these worries, several environmental groups condemned the European Commission’s biofuel ruling, which came after a series of meetings with the palm oil industry.
“A decision by the EU to allow RSPO-certified palm oil to qualify as a renewable fuel could be disastrous for the world’s climate,” Lindsey Allen, the Rainforest Action Network’s Program Director, told mongabay.com. “The whole purpose of the renewable fuels directive is to reduce climate impacts but one of the major failures of the RSPO thus far is its continued certification of palm oil grown on carbon rich peat forests, which produces globally significant greenhouse gas emissions.”
Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, called for an “outright ban” of palm oil as a biofuel.
“Palm oil is driving deforestation, wildlife loss, community conflicts, and accelerating climate change,” he said in a statement.
For its part, the RSPO is currently conducting a review of its Principles and Criteria. A task force has been commissioned to review all comments from the body’s stakeholders—which include human rights groups, environmentalists, buyers, producers, and traders—as part of the public consultation process. Given that RSPO standards are set by its membership, some conservation members have called for groups currently on the outside to join the initiative to push for greener criteria.
Responding to the European Commission’s announcement, the RSPO said that while it has no role in determining whether palm oil is ultimately used for food, cosmetics, or fuel, it believes palm oil should be produced at minimum cost to the environment.
“It is not within RSPO’s consideration to determine the allocation of palm oil for food, fuel and other uses,” the body said in a statement. “The RSPO, however, holds a firm stand that if indeed palm oil is used, it advocates that certified sustainable palm oil is prioritized as it does not contribute to the sustained destruction of valuable tropical forests or damage the interests of people, communities and nations.”
RSPO-certified palm oil currently accounts for 14 percent of the global palm oil market.
The EU is world’s largest buyer of RSPO-certified palm oil and the second largest importer of palm oil, buying more than 5.3 million metric tons in 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
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