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Activists blast EU for extending deadline to ban palm oil in biofuels

A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The endangered species, the ape is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into their forest homes. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • The European Parliament and EU member states have agreed to phase out palm oil from motor fuels by 2030, much later than the initially proposed deadline of 2021.
  • Environmental activists say the extension will allow the environmental and human rights violations linked to the production of palm oil — which prompted the push for the ban in the first place — to continue unabated for several more years.
  • By one estimate, swaths of rainforest and peatland the size of the Netherlands could be destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations in the intervening years.

JAKARTA — The European Parliament and European Union member states have agreed to phase out palm oil from motor fuels by 2030, easing back from an initial deadline of 2021.

The original call to ban palm oil, as part of the EU’s renewable energy policy, stemmed from concerns over environmental and human rights violations in the production of the commodity. By pushing back the deadline, the EU is effectively allowing these violations to continue for several more years, environmental activists say.

“The EU has given itself 12 years to phase out this destructive fuel, which is totally unacceptable,” Nils Hermann Ranum, head of the policy and campaign department at the Rainforest Foundation Norway, said in a press statement.

“A lot of rainforest will be destroyed by the palm oil industry in the intervening 12 years.”

The Rainforest Foundation Norway estimates that 45,000 square kilometers (17,400 square miles) of rainforests and peatland, an area larger than the Netherlands, might be destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations to feed biofuel demand through 2030. This, it warns, would result in the release of 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years.

“It is hard to believe that the EU will continue using palm oil based fuels and contribute to this destruction until 2030,” Ranum said.

The expansion of palm oil estates, especially in Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of the commodity, has long been criticized for driving deforestation across much of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, as well as stoking social conflicts over land and other resources with forest and indigenous communities.

Franky Samperante, the director of the Indonesian NGO Pusaka, said the EU should have stuck to its original proposal of phasing out palm oil by 2021.

“The EU decision will not push Indonesia to make the necessary changes in its palm oil industry which 236 community leaders and smallholders have asked for in a recent joint open letter, namely that it must not lead to human rights violations for indigenous peoples, smallholders, farmers and local communities,” he said in the statement.

The EU is Indonesia’s second-biggest market for palm oil, and imports the commodity largely for use in biofuels. In 2016, a study by the European Federation for Transport and Environment showed that palm oil-based biodiesel was on average three times worse for the climate than fossil fuel, due to the additional greenhouse gas emissions from the deforestation carried out to produce the palm oil.

To address this problem, the European Parliament voted in January this year to phase out the use of palm oil in biofuels by 2021. The proposal drew outrage in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce nearly 90 percent of the world’s palm oil. Both countries have threatened to retaliate through trade measures should the EU proceed with the proposal, calling the move part of a smear campaign to undermine the Southeast Asian palm oil industry in favor of European oilseed producers.

The European Parliament subsequently softened its tone, proposing a later deadline on capping the use of biofuels produced from palm oil. And during talks with representatives of EU member states and the European Commission that ran from June 13-14 in Strasbourg, France, negotiators finally settled on the 2030 deadline. The phase-out will reportedly start with a freeze on existing quantities of imported palm oil.

Outside of its criticism of the extended deadline, the Rainforest Foundation Norway acknowledged the agreement by the member states as a step toward meeting the EU’s overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That target, in turn, is part of a larger international effort to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) under the Paris Agreement.

“The EU has understood that palm oil is unsuitable as fuel in cars. This is a step forward,” Ranum said.

Besides the palm oil phase-out, EU negotiators also agreed to increase the share of renewables in the bloc’s energy production to 32 percent by 2030. The target falls short of the level sought by some governments and the European Parliament.

“The deal is a hard-won victory in our efforts to unlock the true potential of Europe’s clean energy transition,” EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said on Twitter.

Molly Walsh, renewable energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, called the 32 percent renewable target wholly inadequate, saying it “shows a failure to grasp a shifting energy landscape including rapidly falling renewables costs.”

The agreement isn’t set in stone, though, as it still needs to be formally approved by the European Parliament and the European Council. Once endorsed by both co-legislators in the coming months, the updated renewable energy policy will be published and enter into force 20 days after publication. EU member states will then have to transpose the new elements of the policy into national law 18 months after its entry into force.


Banner image: A Bornean orangutan in Indonesian Borneo. The critically endangered species is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into their forest habitats. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.