"Palm oil-diesel. Extinction and climate disaster."


It’s been a bad few weeks for biofuels produced from food crops: first, the US Environmental Protection Agency said that biodiesel made from palm oil will not count towards the country’s renewable fuels mandate because they are damaging to the climate. Rainforest is destroyed and carbon-rich peatland drained in the production of palm oil and this destruction is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change.

In the same week, figures from the EU were leaked showing that greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels produced from palm oil, soybean and rapeseed are higher than those for conventional fossil fuels, like oil, when their indirect effects are taken into account.

According to the EU study, the CO2 emissions of these biofuels could even be compared to those derived from Canada’s tar sands, commonly referred to as the world’s dirtiest fuel. In 2009, the EU ruled that renewable energy sources such as biofuels should make up 10% of Europe’s transportation energy mix by 2020. But the legislation failed to take into account the indirect land use changes which are caused by biofuels: when existing agricultural land is taken up to produce crops for biofuels, then more land is needed to produce food or animal feed, causing environmental destruction such as deforestation.

This spring will be decisive for the future of biofuels: will the EU and the US choose a truly sustainable path for the transport sector or will they continue to support dirty biofuels that actually make things worse?

Take soy, which has turned large swathes of Argentina into one vast monoculture, causing deforestation, displacement of people and pollution of water resources because of the intensive use of herbicides. In spite of this, Argentinian soy is still accepted by the EU as a ‘climate-saving’ biofuel. Indonesia and Malaysia are also preparing major expansions of palm oil plantations in order to cater for increasing EU biofuel demand. And in 2011, Finnish energy company Neste Oil opened its latest massive biodiesel refineries, in Rotterdam, Netherlands - which makes the company potentially the biggest palm oil buyer in the world. Neste Oil won the Public Eye Award as the worst company of 2011 for its production of biodiesel from palm oil that comes from destroyed rainforest in Southeast Asia.

We have precious little time left to save the world from a climate crisis. EU and US policymakers have wasted time by promoting unsustainable biofuels. They over-estimated the contribution of biofuels in the fight against climate change in order to support their powerful agri-business lobbies.

As a result, we risk being locked into an unsustainable biofuels sector. With mounting evidence of the disastrous environmental and social impact of dirty biofuels, governments must recognise that they were wrong to put all their eggs in one basket – and take action.

Priority should be given to energy-saving measures: supporting the production of lighter and smaller cars with more efficient engines, developing public transport and rail transport  (powered with renewables) and reducing overall transport demand. Investments should go into truly sustainable biofuels, such as those produced from waste, which do not require the use of land.

Greenpeace will continue to fight for sustainable climate policies, which do not come at the expense of tropical forests and support sustainable agricultural practices.

Kees is a Greenpeace forest campaigner in the Netherlands – follow him on Twitter @keeskodde_GP