EU destroys 700,000 hectares of rainforest

Photomontage: fumes from a car tailpipe waft across the rainforest.The European Parliament is debating the blending of palm oil in motor vehicle fuels

The European Union wants to protect the climate and reduce carbon emissions from motor vehicles by blending fuels with increasing shares of supposedly eco-friendly “biofuels”.

Last year, 1.9 million tons of palm oil were added to diesel fuel in the EU – in addition to millions of tons of equally harmful rapeseed and soybean oils.

The plantations needed to produce the palm oil cover an area of 700,000 hectares – land that until recently was still rainforest and the habitat of 5,000 endangered orangutans. Despite the clear-cutting of the rainforests, the EU has classified palm oil as sustainably produced.

This policy has now blown up in the legislators’ faces, with scientists confirming what environmentalists and development experts have long asserted: agrofuels help neither people nor the environment – and are most certainly not climate-neutral, as even studies commissioned by the EU show. Biodiesel from palm and soybean oil, but also from European-grown rapeseed, is more harmful than diesel from fossil sources.

The EU should therefore abolish its biofuels policy immediately, but the agro-industry is fighting hard to maintain the status quo. Not surprising, when one considers that biofuels are currently subsidized to the tune of 10 billion euros in the EU alone.

Decision making in the European Union is a long process and involves many different actors that bring in studies, reports, arguments, and numbers. Hundreds of industry lobbyists seek to influence this process and they are trying hard to protect their financial interests. Next, the European Parliament and its committees along with the Council of the European Union will need to agree on a compromise based on the proposal published in October 2012.

Please sign our petition to the EU and demand an end to agrofuels.

Start of campaign: Feb 20, 2013

Every year, 14 million tons of so-called biofuels are blended with gasoline and diesel in the EU. This is slated to increase to 30 million tons by 2020, enough to replace ten percent of the fossil fuel share. Ever-increasing quantities of biofuels, or resources such as palm and soybean oil required for their production, are being imported from overseas. In South America, rainforests and savannas are being burned to make way for the cultivation of sugarcane for ethanol and soy monocultures for biodiesel.

In Southeast Asia, rainforests are being felled, above all for palm oil plantations. With a market share of nearly 90 percent, Malaysia and Indonesia are the two largest palm oil producers – and are also responsible for the most extensive destruction of rainforest. The horrific consequences of the EU biofuels can be seen in Malaysia and elsewhere. On Borneo, the state-owned Yayasan Sabah Group is clearing 70,000 hectares of rainforest to make room for oil palms.14 of Borneo's endangered pygmy elephants were poisoned there because they inconvenienced the plantation companies.

These plantations are certified by the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)”. The palm oil they produce is thus classified as “sustainable” by the EU and can be added to biodiesel. Six million tons of palm oil, by far the cheapest vegetable oil, are flowing onto the European market annually.

The European Union accepts the cheap palm oil because it has been labeled sustainable - although deforestations can be linked directly to the production of palm oil. Biodiesel that is blended with palm oil is about 30% cheaper than the use of rapeseed oil would be.

The Finnish corporation Neste Oil and the US-based corporations ADM and Cargill have already constructed palm oil plantations in South East Asia, partly in cooperation with companies such as Wilmar and IOI. Finnish Neste Oil has even built two palm oil diesel-refineries in Singapore and Rotterdam, which are only producing biofuels for the European market. The refinery in Rotterdam has imported 400,000 tons of palm oil in 2012 for this purpose.

Crude materials for the production of EU "biofuels" in 2012 (total volume: 9.4 million tons)

Rapeseed oil: 5.4 million tons (57%)

Palm oil: 1.9 million tons (20%)

Soybean oil: 0.5 million tons (5%)

Sunflower oil: 0.1 million tons (1,1%)

Tallow and grease (slaughterhouse waste): 0.5 million tons (5,3%)

Recycled oils ("chip fat"): 1 million tons (10,6%)

Palm oil usage for "biofuels" in the EU

2006: 0.4 million tons

2012: 1.87 million tons

Increase: 365%

Source: IISD 9-2013: The EU Biofuel Policy and Palm Oil: Cutting subsidies or cutting rainforest?

Environmental activists hand over the signatures to members of the European ParliamentAlmost 250,000 people signed our petition against agrofuels. Here the environmental activists hand over the signatures to members of the European Parliament.

Sep 26, 2013

Strasbourg: 243,998 signatures against agrofuels handed over

Rainforest Rescue and other environmental and human rights organizations have collected 243,998 signatures of people who call for a change in the fatal agrofuels policy of the European Union.

Together with ActionAid, Down to Earth, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Transport & Environment, and Walhi Indonesia we handed over the collected signatures to representatives of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

We confronted Corinne Lepage with our demands, rapporteur on the Indirect Land Use Change Proposal, as well as Matthias Grote, chairman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and the members of European Parliament Claude Turmes, Bas Eickhout, Josefa Andrés Barea, and Sabine Wils.

Europe’s demand for palm oil is driving deforestation and illegal land grabbing in Indonesia and Malaysia. Together these countries account for about 90% of the global palm oil production. Palm oil plantations are directly responsible for the destruction of the rainforest and they pose a dangerous threat to orangutans, forest elephants, and Sumatran tigers.

By 2020, EU policies favour a 10% target for the share of agrofuels in petrol. The use of food crop-based agrofuels leads to food price rises and hunger.

Rainforest Rescue alone has collected more than 100,000 signatures. We have mailed the signatures to each of the 766 member of European Parliament. Our demands are clear: We oppose agrofuels completely. We are also asking for an immediate stop of all imports of crude palm oil for agrofuel purposes.

This fall European Parliament and the Council of the European Union will decide on the future of agrofuels. The European Union supports the production of agrofuels with 10 billion Euros. This explains the intense pressure exerted from the biofuels industry and European farmers lobby. So far, the policy recommendations have been watered down despite the negative consequences for people, the rainforest, and the climate.        

fire in the forest at nightThe rainforest is burning for oil palm plantations

Jun 23, 2013

Forests ablaze in Sumatra – and the EU pours oil on the fire

Rainforests are burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The arsonists: palm oil companies that need land for their plantations. And while humans, animals and plants are helpless in the face of the fires, the EU industry committee just voted to increase the biofuel share in motor vehicle fuels.

Singapore is sounding the alarm. For several days, Indonesia’s neighbor has been experiencing the worst air pollution ever measured there. The index rose to 321 – values above 100 are considered a health hazard.

The main perpetrators are above all palm oil companies making room for their vast monocultures. Satellite images show more than 100 hotspots. Although banned in Indonesia, the slash-and-burn method is considered to be the most efficient way to clear rainforests. And palm oil is the cheapest “biofuel” –1.9 million tons were blended into diesel in Europe last year.

Various committees are currently reviewing the EU’s agrofuel policy. Most recently, the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy met on June 20 and poured oil on the fire. The committee voted to increase the share of biofuels from food crops to 6.5 percent, rather than capping it at 5 percent as planned. Furthermore, the emission of greenhouse gasses from indirect land use change (ILUC) – the need to cultivate new land for food crops to compensate for land lost to the production of agrofuels – is not going to be taken into account, nor even determined.  

Only last year, northern Sumatra was the scene of a great tragedy: In the province of Aceh, around one hundred orangutans perished in fires set to clear land for oil palm plantations. 

The dangerous smog has prompted Singapore’s government to call on Indonesia’s environment minister to take immediate action, and on June 20, a delegation was sent to a crisis summit in Jakarta. “On the international front, we need urgent and definitive action by Indonesia to tackle the problem at the source,” wrote Singapore’s Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, calling for harsh penalties for the companies that illegally set fires. “No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and wellbeing.”

However, Indonesian government officials are attempting to deflect the blame, noting that foreign palm oil investors – including companies based in Singapore – are responsible for some of the fires. The companies refuted this immediately, of course.

Wilmar International, a company notorious for its human rights and environmental protection record, is among the largest palm oil producers headquartered in Singapore.

We can still act: the EU’s biofuels policy will be put to a vote on July 10 in the environment committee, and on September 10 in the plenary session of Parliament. 

Please sign our petition to the EU:

Biofuel not only destroys rainforests and the livelihoods of forest dwellers, it also exacerbates world hunger. While this has long been known, it was confirmed again by a recent study. According to Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University, New York, the planet could theoretically support a population of ten to eleven billion. The grain is already available – but only about half of it is eaten by humans. The rest is used for animal feed, biofuels and lubricants.