Getting palmed off

In Frontera Invisible, a 28-minute documentary made by T&E, poor farmers and indigenous people of Colombia tell of the moments when they had to flee their lands under threat of violence by paramilitaries. The world’s longest armed conflict – fought between government forces, paramilitary organisations, FARC and other guerrilla groups – ended in 2016 after almost 60 years. But these moving interviews reveal a lesser known aspect: the displacement of thousands from their farms and the covering of their land with palm plantations. This is what a T&E documentary team found in the tropics when it went there to make a film about biofuels.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the role played by EU biofuels policy in palm expansion is becoming clearer. T&E used industry data to show that cars and trucks consume almost half – 46% – of the EU’s palm oil imports. This makes drivers the leading (albeit unaware) consumers of palm oil in Europe. Why does all this matter? On top of the social and human rights issues associated with palm expansion, palm oil biodiesel is on average 300% worse for the climate than fossil diesel.

Palm biodiesel is that bad for the climate because palm expansion for biofuels drives deforestation and peatland drainage in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, opening carbon sinks and creating what policy wonks call indirect land-use change (ILUC) emissions. In April 2016, when the EU’s long-delayed Globiom report was quietly uploaded by the European Commission, T&E quickly ran the numbers to show the greenhouse gas emissions from cultivating, producing and burning biofuels made from different feedstocks. Crop-based biodiesel scored on average 80% worse for the climate than fossil diesel, with palm oil topping the list, proving 300% worse. Soy (200% worse) and rapeseed (120%) weren’t much better.


All of this increased the stakes for the reform of EU biofuels policy for the period 2021 to 2030. The Commission pledged to gradually phase out food-based biofuels in its Low Emission Mobility Strategy, published in July 2016. Months later, the proposed new Renewable Energy Directive said member states can still count a 3.8% share of food-based biofuels towards the EU-wide renewable energy target for 2030. This was barely down from the 4.9% market share at EU level in 2014 but significantly below the 7% cap in 2020. Again, T&E ran the numbers: though an improvement, the Commission proposal on food-based biofuels would still result in extra greenhouse gas emissions from European transport over the period 2021-2030 by an amount equivalent to the emissions from the Netherlands in 2014.

“The NGO Transport & Environment reveals that almost half of all palm oil imported in the EU is used to produce biodiesel.” El Pa​ís, 11 December 2016

The proposed new directive also sets a target for advanced fuels 13 years ahead but fails to establish appropriate sustainability criteria – which suggests the Commission hasn’t learned from the mistakes with first-generation biofuels where the focus on quantity over quality led to the biodiesel disaster.

But T&E is fighting back: armed with the first-hand testimonies in Frontera Invisible, it’s going on the road with screenings for MEPs and national parliaments as well as the general public at film festivals. The message: due to EU biofuels policy, Europe’s motorists are inadvertently fuelling palm oil expansion – with devastating environmental and social consequences.

The new Renewable Energy Directive is setting up a framework for the next decade. Now is the time to decide if we will actually decarbonise our economies with real, low-carbon renewables and clean technologies. Or we can repeat the mistakes of the past by burning biomass resources that, in fact, have negative impacts on land use, biodiversity and local communities. T&E, together with BirdLife Europe, produced the Black Book of Bioenergy, which named and shamed some of the worst examples of bioenergy doing more harm than good to the climate and the environment. From palm oil production in Colombia to biogas from food crops in Germany, the publication laid out in simple terms how current EU and national policies are compromising our future.

T&E, together with Birdlife, looked at the available evidence on sustainable biomass supplies for all energy uses and found we will only have enough to cover 80% of projected bioenergy use in 2030. So, after burning all the available sustainable wood waste, agricultural residues, manure and other organic residues, the remainder will likely be met with unsustainable wood and food crops from home and abroad. The new EU renewable energy policy for the period 2021-2030 should be designed in a way to prevent this from happening.

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