Europe Weighs Forests and Palm Oil

Everything is a question of definition… In a document which has provoked debate at the heart of the organization, the European Commission has attempted to establish criteria to define what makes a biofuel “sustainable”. The issue carries huge implications: Europe has called for 20% of energy to be derived from renewable sources, which is to say environmentally friendly, by 2020. Regarding land allocated to the production of biofuels, the document argues that standing forest and palm oil plantations are interchangeable. Therefore, making the first disappear to be replaced by the second would not go against sustainability criteria.

This “interchangeability” has elicited a strong response from environmental groups. “We cannot compare a “green desert” imposed by palm oil plantations to natural forests or plantations,” argued Adrian Bebb, of the NGO Friends of the Earth.

Palm oil is cited as a major cause of deforestation, particularly in South East Asia. Increase in global demand for the oil as a food source and a biofuel has pushed producers to convert large areas of forest and wetlands. This often occurs to the detriment of both animal and plant biodiversity, and the living environment of the local people. This is in addition to the risk of releasing green house gases that have been trapped by the forests.

The document being drafted in Brussels aims to clarify the principles outlined in the April 2009 directive, which sets targets for Europe in renewable energy. It comes as the new Barroso Commission settles in, after the period of “interregnum” left uncertainty in the content and fate of a number of projects.

Intense Lobbying

At the same time, the major producers of palm oil have mounted an intense lobbying operation directed at the Commission for several months, as they try to promote their interests. This has been done in the hope of seeing the energy requirements win out. “As a transport fuel, palm oil is much more efficient than its competition, particularly ethanol and rapeseed oil,” said Yusof Basiron, director general of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

Given these discussions, the team for the new Energy Commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, are looking to calm the debate down. While noting that “biofuels derived from palm oil can satisfy sustainability criteria, with the condition that good practices are adopted in production,” Marlene Holzner, spokesperson for the commissioner, underlined that “Europe will only promote biofuels that positively contribute to the decarbonization of the energy markets”. Approval of the final text – which is also raising the debate within Member States – is expected in late March. Source :


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