Palm oil has become a major biofuel for EU vehicles, new figures show. But far from an eco-friendly alternative, biodiesel is 80 percent worse for the climate than fossil diesel, critics say. Will the EU change course?
Once touted by some as an eco-friendly fuel of the future, palm oil has surged forward on the back of so-called green credentials to become a major biofuel for vehicles in the European Union, industry figures revealed this week.
The snag? Palm oil, which makes up an ever larger share of biodiesel, helps drive deforestation and actually damages the environment even more than the fossil fuels it was meant to replace, say some environmental groups.
In 2014, nearly half of the palm oil used in Europe ended up in the gas tanks of cars and trucks, according to data compiled by the EU vegetable oil industry association Fediol, and obtained by Brussels-based nongovernmental organization Transport & Environment (T&E) in co-operation with German environmental group Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (Nabu).
Second only to rapeseed as a biofuel, overall palm oil use in EU countries leapt six-fold from 2010 to 2014. And all of the 34 percent growth in this period for EU biodiesel - that is, biofuel mixed with diesel - came from imported palm oil, figures showed.
But the expansion of palm oil plantations into natural rainforest is having a "devastating" impact on both biodiversity and net greenhouse gas emissions, according to T&E. On average, biodiesel is now 80 percent worse for the climate than fossil diesel, the group says.
Palm oil is also found in food, cosmetics and animal feed - but use in these sectors has dropped in Europe, partly due to pressure from environmental groups on major corporations. Calls are now also growing for less use of palm oil in biofuel.
Up to now, how palm oil is distributed across products in the EU was not known.
Jos Dings, executive director of T&E, said the figures "show the ugly truth of Europe's biofuel policy - which drives tropical deforestation, increases transport emissions, and does nothing to help European farmers."
The case for biofuels had initially sounded strong: burning them releases only as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the plants from which they were made had absorbed from the air, resulting in zero net emissions. In reality, however, the exact opposite happened.
When deforestation is taken into account, the climate impact of so-called "first generation" biofuels - mainly rapeseed, palm, sunflower and soy oil - is actually larger than for fossil fuels, research has shown.
These biofuels also compete for ever-scarcer land needed to grow food, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia where the majority of palm oil is grown.
Daniel Rieger, transport policy officer at Nabu, told DW that first-generation biofuels should be relegated to the past.
"It makes no sense to use a lot of areas for cultivating these plants, and then use them to put in your tank," he said to DW. "That's a waste of nature."
The focus should be shifted onto second-generation biofuels - namely compost - instead, he explained: "Second-generation biofuels are made from waste, so you can generate bioenergy from some residue that is left over."
Even better would be to shift the transport model away from reliance on trucks and cars to more sustainable ways of travel such as inland waterways or trains, Rieger thinks.
He added that the public perception of biofuels also needs to change. One point is in branding - biofuels "sound green."
"They think, biofuels sounds organic, so it has to be good for the global climate," Rieger told DW.
Questionable future for biofuels in the EU
Recognizing that the continued use of these crops clashes with goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the EU last year imposed a cap of 7 per cent on biofuels produced from food crops.
It has also established sustainability criteria for such fuels, along with encouraging the development of so-called "advanced" biofuels made from municipal waste, recycled cooking oil or agricultural waste.
Rules set in place in 2009 require that 10 percent of energy for transport in all EU countries come from renewable sources by 2020.
In reality, that has translated into biofuels, since electric-powered vehicles at this point account for only a negligible proportion of energy in the transport sector.
T&E and other green groups have called for the removal of food-based biofuels from the EU's transport energy mix after 2020.
The European Commission is developing new renewable energy policies, with a proposal due to emerge in the next few months. Member states will then carry forward a decision on the future of biofuels in their respective countries.