The inconvenient truth about biofuels

Indonesia is destroying its forests faster than any other country and European cars' and trucks' consumption of palm-oil biodiesel is one of the drivers of this catastrophe. The islands of Kalimantan (Borneo), Sumatra and the province of Papua are being deforested and their peatlands drained to make way for palm and timber plantations, thus opening carbon sinks and destroying natural habitats. EU transport is the top consumer of the reddish oil: almost half of all EU palm imports ends up in our cars, vans and trucks in the form of biodiesel.

Palm oil biodiesel is the highest-emitting biofuel consumed today in Europe, mandated by a law known in the EU bubble by the acronym RED. But biodiesel made from Europe-grown rapeseed or soy is not good for the climate either. According to the Globiom study for the European Commission, European food-based biodiesel (mainly from palm, rape and soy oils) produces, on average, 80% more CO2 than fossil diesel.

The RED has increased the use of food-based biofuels in road transport – around 4% of all transport fuels in 2016. In light of this policy fiasco, the EU has already agreed on limiting the amount of food-based biofuels at 7% in the RED in 2020. In 2016, the European Commission proposed a new RED for the period 2020 to 2030, allowing member states to still count a 3.8% share of food-based biofuels towards the EU-wide renewable energy target for 2030.

In February, before the Commission proposal landed on the desks of MEPs, we kicked off campaigning with the premiere of our award-winning documentary Frontera Invisible in the European Parliament. With co-hosts MEPs Konečná and Dance and testimonies from Liberia and Cameroon, an audience of 160 people discussed the environmental and social impacts of palm oil expansion in its new frontiers.

Two months later, the Parliament’s own-initiative report called for an end to incentives for biofuels that cause deforestation such as those made from palm oil, soy and rapeseed. The vote enraged palm oil exporting nations: Indonesia and Malaysia launched a well-funded and aggressive campaign denouncing Europe’s ‘crop apartheid’ and threatening ‘retaliatiation’.


Back in Europe, the biofuels lobby was busy denying the impact of biofuels on food prices. We busted the myth with a review of over 100 scientific studies. The scientific consensus was clear: the use of vegetable oils and cereals for biofuels increases global food prices, impacting on the urban poor in developing nations particularly.

On the other side of the pond, in Mexico, the aviation industry and dozens of national transport ministries gathered at UN’s ICAO conference with the goal of greenwashing their climate efforts. ICAO’s “Vision” proposal wanted to use vast amounts of bad biofuels while presenting them as “carbon neutral” from 2020. Along with 95 other NGOs across the globe we denounced in situ ICAO’s green fuel plan as ‘a Trojan horse for palm oil’.

Cure worse than the disease

This action was supported by a petition led by Rainforest Rescue and signed by almost 200,000 citizens calling on ICAO not to trash the rainforest for ‘green’ jet fuel! These joint efforts bore some fruit: on 14 October, 25 countries rightly rejected ICAO’s proposed biofuels target. Regrettably, a month later ICAO nations surrendered to industry pressure and allowed unsustainable biofuels to qualify for the aviation’s global carbon offsetting scheme dubbed CORSIA.

T&E also looked into the much-hyped e-fuels – electricity-based liquid fuels which can be used in internal combustion engines. The results didn’t please the auto industry: E-fuels are inefficient and too expensive to decarbonise cars and trucks but could supply a limited amount of aviation's growing energy needs and only if the electricity comes from renewables.

Meanwhile, to dispute the perception that the biofuels policy was mainly benefiting struggling farmers in Europe, we put out the 10 things people didn’t know about EU biofuels. Two facts stood out: around half of EU production of crop biodiesel is based on imports, not crops grown by EU farmers; and EU biodiesel production growth since 2009 (when the RED was enacted) has been based on imports and waste oils.

El balance de emisiones es mayor que el de los motores de diésel. No hay beneficios climáticos.” Cristina Mestre, T&E climate and biofuels officer El País, 18 December 2017

By Christmas, the EU Parliament was divided in half on how to fix the RED: the environment committee had voted to phase out the support for food-based biodiesel while Industry MEPs wanted to keep subsidising biofuels from food until 2030. Along with 15 green and development NGOs we decided to give citizens the chance to voice their concerns directly to their MEPs. In the space of one week over ​20,000 Europeans wrote to MEPs, telling them that the EU’s supposed biofuels cure was worse than the disease. The majority of the Parliament eventually voted to end subsidies to highest-emitting palm biofuel and to freeze all food-based biofuels at 2017 levels.

As this article goes online, EU governments, the Parliament and Commission are entangled in this controversial topic. We have always said Europe needs to look to the future and support only sustainable advanced fuels and renewable electricity.

Learn more