Record levels of palm oil in diesel as ‘burning food for fuel’ madness continues

The amount of palm oil used in biodiesel has risen to a record high, despite new EU rules saying it must be phased out. New data shows the amount rose to 4.5 million tonnes in 2019, an increase of 7%, which means European drivers burned 100 times more palm oil than is contained in the world’s supply of Oreo cookies. T&E says the ‘madness of burning food in cars’ must stop.

The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) committed the EU to having a share of its renewable transport fuel coming from biofuels by 2020. But over the years evidence has emerged that biodiesel emitted more greenhouse gases than they saved. Palm oil in particular has been found responsible for widespread deforestation, which contributes to climate change as well as causing ecological and social problems. 

In 2019, the European Commission recognised (as part of a review of the RED) that palm oil was unsustainable, and legislation now requires its share of fuels to be frozen, reduced from 2023 and phased out by 2030. But the original directive, which applies until the end of the year, allows fuel producers to mix oil from food crops with traditional petrol and diesel.

New EU data shows that 45% of global palm oil expansion since 2008 has caused deforestation. This is in line with T&E’s original finding from 2016 that biodiesel made from palm oil is three times worse for the climate than regular diesel.

T&E’s biofuels manager Cristina Mestre said: ‘The madness of burning food in cars must stop. This failed biofuels policy forces up global food prices, drives deforestation and climate change, and threatens both local communities and endangered species. EU leaders must ensure the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive leads to all food-based biofuels – not just palm oil – being phased out from next year.’

While use of rapeseed, sunflower, soy and palm oil in biodiesel has risen by 46% from 8 million tonnes in 2009 to 11.7mt in 2019, their use to make everyday products such as bread, ice cream, hazelnut spread, chocolate, margarine, shampoo and detergent has remained at around 12mt per year.

The popular cookie, the Oreo, has been criticised for having some of its fat content from palm oil. But even as the world’s best-selling biscuit, its palm oil consumption falls well below biodiesel. To show the order of magnitude, T&E has compared the 4.5mt of palm oil burned in Europe’s car engines with the amount of palm oil in the 40 billion Oreos eaten across the world each year. Assuming that only half the fat in an Oreo is from palm oil, European drivers burn 100 times more palm oil in a year than all the Oreos eaten worldwide.

Spain, the Netherlands and Italy together made up 81.5% of the EU’s palm oil diesel production in 2019, with Spain the largest of them with 1.76mt of palm oil transformed into biodiesel in Spanish refineries. This has prompted an international coalition of NGOs to relaunch the successful #NotInMyTank campaign to urge the governments of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands to end public support for food-based biofuels. The campaign was highly successful in 2018-19 in showing that biofuels were no cure for climate change, and in fact contributed to it.