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Norway bans government purchasing of palm oil biofuel

  • The growth of the palm oil industry has been blamed for a host of damaging environmental impacts, such as deforestation and carbon emissions.
  • Research indicates that biofuel made with palm oil may be even worse for the climate than fossil fuels.
  • The Norwegian parliament responded to these impacts by voting in a regulation to its Public Procurement Act to stop using biofuel palm oil-based biofuel. The resolution further stipulates that the “regulatory amendment shall enter into force as soon as possible.”
  • Conservationists laud the move, but say more countries need to follow suit. They recommend the EU’s biofuel policy be updated to reflect concerns about palm oil.

The Norwegian parliament voted today to ban the public procurement and use of palm oil-based biofuel – purportedly becoming the first country to do so.

“The [Parliament] calls on the government to impose requirements through regulations to the Public Procurement Act that biofuel based on palm oil or by-products of palm oil shall not be used,” reads a translated government outline of the resolution. 

Public procurement is a procedure by which governments purchase goods or services from companies. The resolution further stipulates that the “regulatory amendment shall enter into force as soon as possible.”

The move comes on the heels of a report released today by the Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) that finds palm oil-based biofuel is worse for the climate than fossil fuels. The report, written by low-carbon fuels policy expert Chris Malins, blames land cover change like deforestation and the draining of peatlands for palm oil’s harmful impacts.

“There is a large body of evidence that because of indirect land use change (ILUC), palm oil biodiesel is worse for the climate than the fossil fuel it replaces – perhaps several times worse,” the report concludes.

Palm oil is a controversial commodity found in products ranging from cookies and cosmetics to biodiesel and cooking fuel. Once touted as a more sustainable alternative to other food oils and fossil fuels because of its production efficiency and renewability (a hectare planted with oil palm trees yields about 10 times more oil than a hectare of soy), opinion on the industry has taken a turn over the years. With oil palm plantations covering vast areas of once-rainforest of Southeast Asia – primarily Indonesia and Malaysia – and encroaching into other tropical countries around the world, many now see palm oil as a scourge rather than a savior.

The conversion of forests for oil palm plants comes at a cost to the wildlife that once lived there, as monoculture plantations can’t support the same biodiversity levels that natural forests can. Then there’s the issue of CO2. Deforestation is one of the biggest contributors of anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon emissions– so much so, that protection of forests is one of the key focal areas of the Paris Accord.

For instance, forest loss emissions data indicate more than 7.8 million metric tons of carbon was released from just one oil palm concession in Indonesian Borneo between 2001 and 2014.

An oil palm plantation abuts natural forest in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Emissions worsen when plantations are established on peatlands. Composed of waterlogged organic material that has built up over millennia, even relatively small areas of peat acts like super storehouses for carbon. The peatlands of Indonesia’s Kampar Peninsula, a piece of land the size of Tokyo, store an estimated 1.6 gigatons of carbon – an amount equivalent to 13.6 billion barrels of gasoline.

“Tropical peatland forest is one of the Earth’s most efficient systems for biological carbon storage,” RFN’s report states. “Peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia store around 70 gigatons of carbon – if all of this were oxidized, it would be equivalent to seven years of total global carbon dioxide emissions at the current rate.”

Peatlands need to be drained in order to be suitable for oil palm cultivation. In doing so, the peat is dried out and made highly combustible. And if it does ignite, peat fires are difficult or impossible to control. Such was the case during Indonesia’s haze crisis of 2015, an event that scientists say may have led to the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people and affected millions more.

“Palm oil-based biofuel is a bad choice for the climate and drives rainforest destruction,” said Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway in a media release. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a country bans all use of palm oil biofuel by public entities. Norway’s decision is an important step towards removing environmentally damaging goods from the market. It also demonstrates the need for a serious reform of the world’s palm oil industry.”

Rainforest Foundation Norway is lauding the ban, and urges more countries to follow suit.

“It is highly positive that Norway has now followed up on last year’s pledge to ensure deforestation-free supply chains through the government’s public procurement policy with this strong commitment,” Hermann Ranum said. “It is now incumbent on other consumer countries to follow suit. In particular, the EU should take urgent steps to reduce the consumption of commodities, such as palm oil biodiesel, that are linked to rainforest destruction and accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and human rights violations.”

Hermann Ranum also singled out the EU’s biofuel policy, saying it should be changed to keep up with current research indicating palm oil-based biofuels may actually be more destructive than fossil fuels when it comes to climate change.

“A revision of the EU biofuel policy, to avoid biofuels that drive deforestation and are worse for the climate than fossil fuels, is urgently needed.”

Banner image: deforestation for palm oil in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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