Deforestation for palm oil production in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Palm oil imports into Europe for use as car fuel increased by more than three-fold since 2006, raising concerns than renewable fuels targets may be contributing to deforestation, displacing marginalized communities, and driving greenhouse gas emissions in Southeast Asia, finds a new study published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
The report, published today, finds that 80 percent of the European Union’s increase in palm oil consumption between 2006 and 2012 was due to increased use for biofuel production. Use in food and cosmetics remain almost flat during the period.
Overall palm oil consumption by the EU-27 jumped 41 percent from 4.51 million tons in 2006 to 6.38 million tons in 2012. Palm oil consumption for biodiesel surged 365 percent from 402,000 tons to 1.87 million tons.
The Netherlands, the largest palm oil consumer in Europe, saw its use of palm oil for biofuels spike 9500 percent from 5,000 tons to 480,000 tons over the period.
At 300,000 metric tons in 2012, Germany is the second largest European consumer of biofuels for biodiesel consumption, followed by Italy (220,000 tons), Spain (200,000 tons), and Finland (200,000 tons). But Britain’s palm oil consumption dropped 31 percent during the period.
Palm oil consumption for biofuels, food, cosmetics and energy in Europe
The findings suggest that producers in Malaysia and Indonesia are making inroads in a critical market for biofuels. The E.U. has mandated that at least ten percent of the European fuel market for transport be met by renewable energy sources by 2020. But a proposal — up for vote Wednesday — would cut that target in half, limiting the amount of biodiesel that can be produced from food-based crops.
The numbers also indicate that lower palm oil prices may be creating new markets for the vegetable oil, which is typically used as a cooking oil; a fat in processed foods, soap, and cosmetics; and for industrial purposes. Until recently, high palm oil prices made conversion for biofuels an unattractive option, but with prices down roughly 40 percent off their highs, using palm oil as a feedstock for biodiesel is now lucrative proposition.
Palm oil consumption for biofuels, food, cosmetics and energy in Europe
More than 85 percent of palm oil — which is produced from the fruit of the oil palm — is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Much of the crop’s expansion has taken place at the expense of wildlife-rich rainforests and carbon-dense peatlands, making palm oil a target for environmental campaigners, who see it as a potential threat to endangered species, climate, and traditional communities.
Accordingly, Friends of the Earth (FOE) Europe, the activist group that commissioned the IISD report, urged the E.U. to approve the proposal to cut the biofuels mandate.
“Palm oil is driving mass deforestation, wildlife loss, community conflicts, and accelerating climate change,” said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, in a statement. “It is alarming to find that palm oil use in European cars is sky-rocketing, and will only increase further, unless MEPs put a halt to increasing biofuels. Drivers are unknowingly being forced to fill up with a fuel that is destroying rainforests, communities and the climate.”
Nur Hidayati, head of campaigns for WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia, added that capping the amount of crop-based biofuels used in European cars could help reduce social conflict over palm oil in Indonesia.
“Civil society organizations in southern countries have watched the development of Europe’s biofuels policy with anxiety,” said Nur. “This enormous increase in palm oil demand in Europe is escalating deforestation, land grabbing, and conflicts in Indonesia. Biofuels demand must be capped and reduced otherwise Europe will only intensify the problems for Indonesian people affected by palm oil expansion.”
Palm oil production is today one of the biggest drivers of deforestation — and the largest driver of peatlands degradation — in Indonesia. Data released by Greenpeace last week suggests that up to a quarter of all deforestation in Indonesia between 2009 and 2011 could be attributed to palm oil. Greenpeace is pushing for stronger sourcing policies to encourage palm oil producers not to clear natural forests and peatlands for new plantations.
Oil palm estate and rainforest in Malaysian Borneo
Growing concerns over the environmental impact of palm oil has provoked an industry response. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a multistakeholder body that sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production. It aims to create a “safe” label for palm oil sourced under the standard. Yet some environmental groups, including FOE Europe and Greenpeace, say the initiative is still too weak and call for buyers to demand more stringent safeguards for palm oil sourcing. Meanwhile some producers complain that the premium for certified palm oil is too small to justify the effort.
However, most palm oil is consumed in countries where consumers show little preference for environmental standards: Indonesia, India, China, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Therefore the direct impact of certification generally remains limited to “premium” markets like Europe and the United States, making the issue a difficult one to address for environmentalists, who are also challenged by the crop’s productivity, which makes it both a cheap source of cooking oil and a profitable investment.
(09/03/2013) Conversion of forests for palm oil production now appears to be the single largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia, accounting for roughly a quarter of forest loss between 2009 and 2011, asserts a new Greenpeace report that accuses the sector’s main certification standard of failing to stop forest destruction. The report, titled Certifying Destruction, uses satellite imagery, government concession data, field investigations, and third party analysis to conclude that several recent and current members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — the industry’s chief eco-certification body — are continuing to buy or trade palm oil produced via the conversion of rainforests and carbon-dense peatlands in the Southeast Asian nation.
(03/07/2013) British Parliament has approved new government subsidies for biofuel use in U.K. power stations. Controversially the new measure would potentially subsidize fuels produced from palm oil, a move environmentalists warn could exacerbate deforestation in Africa and Southeast Asia.
(11/28/2012) 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.
(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.
(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).
(01/12/2010) Palm oil is one of the world’s most traded and versatile agricultural commodities. It can be used as edible vegetable oil, industrial lubricant, raw material in cosmetic and skincare products and feedstock for biofuel production. Growing global demand for palm oil and the ensuing cropland expansion has been blamed for a wide range of environmental ills, including tropical deforestation, peatland degradation, biodiversity loss and CO2 emissions. In response to these concerns, a group of stakeholders—including activists, investors, producers and retailers—formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to develop a certification scheme for palm oil produced through environmentally- and socially-responsible ways. It is widely anticipated that the creation of a premium market for RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) would incentivize palm oil producers to improve their management practices.