Are climate action commitments by EU really sincere?

In recent years, EU has taken the role to be the champion in the world to arrest and stop deforestation. This action is called for as IPCC (2019) has reported that deforestation and peatland degradation contribute most of the 13% of total human-caused land use CO2 emissions in the world1.  If left unchecked, this will contribute significantly to climate change; in particular, hastening climate change.

EU has ambitiously targeted that by 2020, natural forest loss in the world will be halved, and it will strive to totally stop deforestation by 20302. To achieve the plan, the following initiatives have been undertaken as follows:-

– Amsterdam Declaration Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries (2015)2: A declaration by seven EU countries with a non-legally binding political intention to eliminate deforestation through the private sector’s goal of zero net deforestation. The seven countries who signed the declaration are Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and United Kingdom. The Declaration targets agricultural commodities associated with deforestation, particularly palm oil, soya, and cocoa, for which Europe has a significant market share.

– Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forest (2019)3 which calls for the need to step up EU’s actions against deforestation and forest degradation.

Europe has a longer term vision to make the region climate neutral in 2050 by following policy initiatives that are spelled out in The European Green Deal (2020)4. . A large amount of goods that are imported into Europe has a high deforestation footprint. EU pointed out that the clearing of land for agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation and to ensure that Europe meets its vision of climate neutrality in 2050, goods that have high deforestation footprints must eventually be phased out in European markets5.

It is mentioned in the Amsterdam Declaration   that oil palm cultivation is one of the major causes of deforestation. Naturally, therefore, products containing palm oil will not find a place in  the market shelves in EU eventually and  this raised concern among oil palm growers who argued that oil palm produces 5 to 9 times more oil on the same land area than its substitutes viz. rapeseed, sunflower and soya. In fact, the replacement of palm oil by these substitutes will cause more deforestation to happen in the world, in the order of 5 to 9 times more.

Moreover, oil palm is found to be a very suitable crop that can grow and yield well in the humid tropics; a region in the world dominated by developing and under developed countries. With a historical track record of at least a century of commercial cultivation in Malaysia, oil palm has proven to be one of the best, if not the best, economic crop that is capable of providing good returns to the farmer and the government6.

It is, thus, surprising to read that EU, as the champion in the world to halt deforestation, succumbed to the act of mass loss of forest within her own home ground. Attention was drawn to this episode in an article that was published in July 20207. It was reported that much of the forest was harvested for timber. The net result was that the loss of biomass in EU’s forests increased by 69% from 2016 – 2018 when compared to the period of 2011-2015 .As a result, the continents carbon absorption capacity was reduced and this thwarts Europe’s role to combat the climate crisis. Interestingly enough is that the period of 2016-2018 coincides with the period after EU has announced to the world that the nation will champion halting deforestation.

Four months later, in November 2020, Norway grabbed attention when the country offered oil companies frontier blocks for oil exploration8.  Eight of these blocks are in the Arctic Barents and the remainder in the Norwegian Sea. This attracted fierce criticism from environmental campaigners who said that this contradicts the country’s international commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. Such a move is totally out of sync with Norway’s commitments and leading roles to address climate change and environmental degradation in the world.  As far back as 1959, Norway was one of the twelve countries that signed the Antartica Treaty9. This is a treaty to foster scientific preservation and investigation of the region and included an agreement to ban mineral and oil exploration for 50 years as well as regulations to protect Antartica’s environment.

Norway is a leader in the use of renewable energy (RE) in the country. In 2019, the share of electrically charged cars formed about 10% of all cars in the country10.

Norway is one of seven countries to sign the Amsterdam Declaration which called for eliminating deforestation from agricultural commodity chains with European countries. Palm oil, as a biofuel feedstock, was affected and its consumption in Norway fell by 70% in 2018 compared to 201711. It seems reasonable to suggest that this move to remove palm oil biofuel from EU is needed to support and expand the country’s growing domestic biofuel industry which uses waste fats and vegetable oils (palm oil excluded). In fact there was even a proposal that jet fuel suppliers must blend 0.5% of the fuel with biofuel as early as January 202012.This proposal also demanded that airplanes refuelling in the country must use this product. However, the proposal has not taken off the ground .Norway is also noted for technological advances in RE, one of which is the industrialisation of the power-to-liquid (PtL) technology which can convert electricity into renewable fuels13.

With such an impressive track record of promoting the use of RE and her impressive efforts to abate climate change, it is a puzzle why Norway took such a major step backwards to open the way for major exploration of oil in her territory. This is particularly so since the energy sector is the largest contributor of total GHG anthropogenic emission, with a whopping 35% share according to IPCC14. The GHG emissions from this source is 2.7 times larger than that from deforestation and peat degradation.

A plausible reason is as follows. Norway is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter in the world and has large reserves of oil and gas lying within the oceans, much of which are located in the Barents sea15. Export revenue from the oil industry contributes to 20% of GDP. Norway is ranked as the fourth highest per capita income in the world on the World Bank and IMF list. The government controls the oil industry through state ownership of the major operators. The government also controls the licensing and production of the oil fields. It is thus, not surprising that the government is tapping into this resource as a source of continuing income by the above move. Norway wants to tap the lucrative revenue from her unexploited oil fields by offering the above mentioned contracts for oil exploration.

The sad moral of these two episodes that happened in Europe recently tell us that even world champions on climate change mitigation are not really committed to their pledges. Such pledges will not be honoured all the time. This happens when business decisions override climate action concerns and shows a lack of sincerity and commitment of the champions.

It is questionable whether EU’s steps to remove products linked to high deforestation during cultivation is actually done sincerely as a climate change mitigation measure. The series of events above make us query whether the topic of deforestation is being used as a disguise for trading purposes by suppressing the importation of products, such as palm oil, that compete with European substitutes and are not in line with European business strategies.

References 

  1. IPCC. 2019. Special Report. Climate Change and Land.
  2. Amsterdam Declaration towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries (2015) https://ad-partnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Amsterdam-Declaration-Deforestation-Palm-Oil-v2017-0612.pdf.
  3. European Commission. 2019. Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forest. SWD (2019) 307 final, pp22.
  4. European Commission. 2020.Deforestation and forest degradation – reducing the impact of products placed on the EU market
  5. European Commission 2020.The European Green Deal
  6. Ahmad Tarmizi A (2008): Felda- A success story, Global Oils & Fats, 5,1,6-11.
  7. Harvey, F. 2020. Europe losing forest to harvesting at alarming rate: data suggests. The Guardian.
  8. Adomaitis, N. 2020. Update 3-Norway offers 136 Arctic oil exploration blocks.Financials November 19, 2020.
  9. ResearchGate. The 1959 Antartica Treaty and subsequent Antartica Treaty System.www.researchgate.net
  10. Norway.Country summary. https://climatectiontracker.org/countires/norway/
  11. Crothers, L. 2019. Norway sees sharp drop in palm oil biofuel consumption after abn on government purchasing. Mongabay Series, Global Forests, Global Palm Oil, 17 June 2019.
  12. Karagiannopoulos, L. 2019. Airlines get ready for jet biofuel take off in Norway. Reuters.
  13. Biofuels International. 2020. Plans take off for Norwegian renewable fuels plant. June 11, 2020.
  14. IPCC. 2014. Energy system IN Climate Change 2014. Mitigation of climate change
  15. Wikipedia. 2020. Norway.
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