Hundreds of millions of tonnes of palm oil look
set to be pumped into Britain's vehicles despite scientific evidence
showing that chopping down rainforests to make way for plantations
exacerbates climate change, according to a leaked report.
The European Commission is planning to increase the amount of palm oil used in
cars and power stations under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is
intended to reduce greenhouse gases, suggests the document.
A loophole in the draft communication from Brussels on implementation of the
directive would allow almost all palm oil currently produced to be used in
vehicles on British roads.
The development - which campaigners warned have would lead to fresh bouts of
forest destruction in Asia to meet growing global demand for the oil - comes
after an intense campaign of lobbying in Brussels by Malaysian producers who
feared the EU would ban imports of palm oil for energy.
Britons use 50 billion litres of transport fuel a year, 2.7 per cent of which
came from biofuels in 2008-09. Palm oil, which is primarily used in food and
household products, already controversially forms part of that fuel mix.
The Government says it is keen to avoid use of environmentally damaging
materials but admits there is insufficient data about the provenance of 42
per cent of transport biofuel used in the UK. Under the RED, passed last
year, Britain and other EU states are required to source 10 per cent of
petrol and diesel in road transport from renewable sources. Part of that
will be accounted for by electrical vehicles but the majority is expected to
come from plant-based fuels such as rapeseed, soy, palm and sugar cane.
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The EC document ostensibly protects wildlife areas that could grow these
plants by banning member states from sourcing fuel from greenhouse
gas-sequestering grasslands, wetlands and forests. But, in a crucial
exemption, the protection does not apply to habitats changed before January
2008, meaning the vast majority of palm oil produced may be used, even
though much of it comes from plantations that have replaced forests in the
past 15 years.
The policy is almost certain to increase demand for palm oil, which can only
be grown in tropical climates in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian
countries, West Africa and the Amazon in Brazil. Rainforests have strong
carbon credentials; they suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow.
According to a study by Denmark's Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology,
published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2008, it would take between
75 and 93 years for the benefits to the climate generated by switching to
biofuels to outweigh the detrimental effects of converting rainforest to
Forests in the biggest palm oil-producing countries of Malaysia and Indonesia
are rich in rare wildlife, including the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, but
about 90 per cent of an area's flora and fauna are lost when the land is
converted to monoculture plantations where the plants are grown in straight
lines. Some palm oil producers have also been linked to human rights abuses.
According to a Department of Transport study, palm oil is forecast to account
for 45 per cent of Europe's biodiesel by 2020. The EC declined to comment on
the draft document.
Friends of the Earth's agri-fuels campaign coordinator Adrian Bebb said: "I
know the Commission officials and they're trying to get palm oil in."
Robert Palgrave of Biofuelswatch said: "If you expand the palm oil
business for food, fuel or cosmetics, more forest will be destroyed."