Anger as Commission allows ‘sustainable’ palm oil

Environmental groups have reacted angrily to news that the Commission has approved a scheme that would allow fuels made from palm oil to count towards the EU’s renewable fuels target. The decision threatens to reignite the controversy that indirect land-use change (ILUC) is not being taken into account in the EU’s biofuels policy.

The decision, taken in November but not publicised until several days later, contradicts the Commission’s recent proposal that recognised that ILUC caused by biodiesel production is very high. In October, Brussels announced plans to reduce the amount of biofuels produced from food crops that could count towards renewable fuels obligations and included reporting on ILUC emissions in the legislation. With full climate impact included, biodiesel produced from palm oil fails to meet the sustainability criteria, in fact the Commission’s own research showed palm oil to have the highest greenhouse gas emissions of all biofuels when ILUC factors are taken into account.

Hence the surprise when it emerged that the Commission’s energy directorate had approved a voluntary certification scheme put forward by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that would allow ‘sustainable palm oil’ to be counted under the EU renewable energy directive.

There is also immense doubt about whether ‘sustainable’ palm oil really is sustainable. The NGO Wetlands International says: ‘Under the EC-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 (eg. 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. 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, resulting in the continued destruction of tropical forests and peatlands.’

T&E biofuels officer Nusa Urbancic said: ‘It’s interesting that this approval comes just a few weeks after the publication of the ILUC proposal. There is clearly still a sense of denial in parts of the Commission about ILUC. The director-general for energy policy was quoted as saying that current scientific modelling on ILUC is still not robust, despite the fact that this is probably the most researched subject in the Commission’s history. ILUC is obviously an inconvenient truth in the energy world.’

A spokesperson for Greenpeace was more forceful. ‘The Commission’s decision is disgraceful and smacks of hypocrisy,’ said Sini Harkki. ‘One day palm oil biodiesel is dirtier than normal diesel, and the next day, after a little poking by the industry, the Commission swallows its own words.’

The RSPO is an association of palm oil growers, processors, traders and distributors. It also works with NGOs in countries where palm oil is produced, but one member of the RSPO Greenhouse Gas Working Group, Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International, distanced himself from the RSPO’s conclusions. ‘This sustainability certification ignores and does nothing to prevent further conversion and drainage of peatlands and tropical rainforests for palm oil cultivation,’ he said. ‘It allows the EU to cherrypick, choosing the palm oil that meets the EU standard and closing its eyes to Iluc caused by the business-as-usual of all the other palm oil plantations.’