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.
(09/13/2012) The European Union may cap the use of crop-based biofuels over fears they can drive up food prices and aren’t effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional fuels, reports Reuters.
(05/18/2012) The palm oil industry has hired lobbying powerhouse Holland & Knight to help overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that palm oil-based biodiesel fails to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets under the country’s Renewable Fuels Standard, reports The Hill.
(04/26/2012) Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil processor and trader, has hired a major lobbying firm to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that palm oil-based biodiesel will not meet greenhouse gas emissions standards under America’s Renewable Fuels Standard, reports The Hill.
(03/14/2012) Surging demand for vegetable oil has emerged as an important driver of tropical deforestation over the past two decades and is threatening biodiversity, carbon stocks, and other ecosystem functions in some of the world’s most critical forest areas, warns a report published last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). But the report sees some reason for optimism, including emerging leadership from some producers, rising demand for “greener” products from buyers, new government policies to monitor deforestation and shift cropland expansion to non-forest area, and partnerships between civil society and key private sector players to improve the sustainability of vegetable oil production.
(01/30/2012) Greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil-based biodiesel are the highest among major biofuels when the effects of deforestation and peatlands degradation are considered, according to calculations by the European Commission. The emissions estimates, which haven’t been officially released, have important implications for the biofuels industry in Europe.
(01/27/2012) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled on Friday that palm oil-based biofuels will not meet the renewable fuels standard due to carbon emissions associated with deforestation.
(11/30/2011) It has long been known that biofuels release greenhouse gas emissions through land conversion like deforestation. But an innovative new study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) published in Ecology and Society has computed how long it would take popular biofuel crops to payoff the “carbon debt” of land conversion. While there is no easy answer—it depends on the type of land converted and the productivity of the crop—the study did find that in general soy had the shortest carbon debt, though still decades-long, while palm oil grown on peatland had the longest on average.
(11/08/2011) Biofuels produced from oil palm plantations established on tropical peatlands are a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions, reports a comprehensive new assessment conducted for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
(09/21/2011) To encourage uptake of palm oil that is less damaging to the environment, the European Union (EU) should lift the import duty on palm oil certified under Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said a Dutch industry group.
(03/24/2011) Not too long ago policy-makers, scientists, and environmentalists saw biofuels as a significant tool to provide sustainable energy to the world. However, as it became clear that biofuels were not only connected to deforestation, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions (sometimes exceeding fossil fuels), but also competed with the global food supply and water sources, biofuels no longer seemed like a silver bullet, but a new problem facing the environment and the poor. Still, biofuels have persisted not so much due to perceived environmental benefits, but to entrenched interests by the big agricultural industry, lobbyists, and governments. However, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) hopes to begin certifying environmentally friendly biofuels that don’t compete with food production or water sources.
(01/26/2011) The commercial shows a typical office setting. A worker sits drearily at a desk, shredding papers and watching minutes tick by on the clock. When his break comes, he takes out a Nestle KitKat bar. As he tears into the package, the viewer, but not the office worker, notices something is amiss—what should be chocolate has been replaced by the dark hairy finger of an orangutan. With the jarring crunch of teeth breaking through bone, the worker bites into the “bar.” Drops of blood fall on the keyboard and run down his face. His officemates stare, horrified. The advertisement cuts to a solitary tree standing amid a deforested landscape. A chainsaw whines. The message: Palm oil—an ingredient in many Nestle products—is killing orangutans by destroying their habitat, the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
(06/10/2010) The E.U. today moved to establish environmental standards for biofuels used in Europe, requiring biofuels to deliver “substantial reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions and not result in conversion of forests or wetlands, according to a statement from the European Commission.
(03/26/2010) Last week Nestle, the world’s largest food processor, was caught in a firestorm when it attempted to censor a Greenpeace campaign that targeted its use of palm oil sourced from a supplier accused of environmentally-damaging practices. The incident brought the increasingly raucous debate over palm oil into the spotlight and renewed questions over an industry-backed certification scheme that aims to improve the crop’s environmental performance.
(08/06/2009) A new study finds oil palm plantations store less carbon than previously believed, suggesting that palm oil produced through the conversion of tropical forests carries a substantial carbon debt.
(07/16/2009) Sustainable biofuels can be a reality but only in combination with reductions in fuel demand and increased productivity on existing agricultural lands, argue researchers writing in the journal Science. Five years ago biofuels were seen as a panacea for the world’s energy hunger and the need to address climate change, but increased production of biofuels soon contributed to a clutch of problems, including competition with food, resulting in rising prices, and large-scale conversion of rainforests and tropical grasslands for feedstocks, resulting in biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists and scientists condemned many biofuels — including ethanol produced from Midwestern corn ethanol and biodiesel generated from European rapeseed and Southeast Asian palm oil — as a short-sighted energy solution. Some biofuels were found to be even worse for the environment, and more costly, than conventional gasoline. However some researchers remain optimistic that smart biofuel production could help meet energy demand without hurting people or the planet. In a Science Policy Forum piece, David Tilman and colleagues explore some of these options, noting that biofuels can be produced in substantial quantities at low environmental cost
(08/27/2008) The British government should end subsidies for biofuels and instead use the funds to slow destruction of rainforests and tropical peatlands argues a new report issued by a U.K.-based think tank. The study, titled “The Root of the Matter” and published by Policy Exchange, says that “avoided deforestation” would be a more cost-effective way to address climate change, since land use change generates more emissions than the entire global transport sector and offers ancillary benefits including important ecosystem services.
(07/22/2008) Biofuels meant to help alleviate greenhouse gas emissions may be in fact contributing to climate change when grown on converted tropical forest lands, warns a comprehensive study published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Analyzing the carbon debt for biofuel crops grown in ecosystems around the world, Holly Gibbs and colleagues report that “while expansion of biofuels into productive tropical ecosystems will always lead to net carbon emissions for decades to centuries… [expansion] into degraded or already cultivated land will provide almost immediate carbon savings.” The results suggest that under the right conditions, biofuels could be part of the effort to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint.
(02/07/2008) Converting native ecosystems for production of biofuel feed stocks is worsening the greenhouse gas emissions they are intended to mitigate, reports a pair of studies published in the journal Science. The studies follow a series of reports that have linked ethanol and biodiesel production to increased carbon dioxide emissions, destruction of biodiverse forest and savanna habitats, and water and air pollution.
(12/17/2007) Researchers have confirmed that converting peat forests for oil palm plantations results in a large net release of carbon dioxide, indicating industry claims that palm oil helps fight climate change are unfounded, at least when plantations are established in peatlands.
(11/23/2007) 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.