A better future for biofuels without palm oil?

Palm oil’s days as a source of biodiesel in Europe appear to be numbered. The ENVI committee of the European Parliament voted recently to ban palm oil for biodiesel from 2021. Political opinion is finally starting to differentiate between crop biofuels associated with deforestation and those that are lower risk. An increasing number of crop biofuels producers are also acknowledging the damage that palm oil has done to the reputation of their product, judging from public comments at the recent Argus Biofuels conference in London; so perhaps the industry won’t fight this decision. Ironically, sustainability certification, which is obligatory for palm oil destined for biofuels in Europe, strictly prohibits de-forestation since 1st January 2008. It is the food and chemical uses of palm oil, where there is no sustainability requirement, which cause the most damage.

So, without palm oil, could European politicians finally accept that crop-based biofuels can be sustainable? There is after all plenty of spare agricultural land to produce biofuels in Europe. References to crop based biofuels which do not cause ILUC (indirect land use change) are even included in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Whatever the outcome of these debates the future focus will continue to shift towards waste and other materials. Currently there is a cap in the RED post 2020 on the production of biofuels from used cooking oil (UCO) and tallow of 1.7% of the energy content of transport fuels. The idea of the cap is to incentivise ‘advanced’ biofuels from algae and other biomass routes not yet commercialised, rather than waste derived biofuels made by established technology. But some governments think this approach is counterproductive, and there is optimism that it will be changed. 

If the cap is lifted then new supplies of UCO are likely to be imported from Asia and China where the black market currently recycles significant quantities of used cooking oil back into the food chain. Although no one wants used cooking oil masquerading as virgin oil in the food chain, the net effect of providing an attractive biodiesel market for UCO, is likely to be that more virgin oil is consumed for food in the Far East. And that virgin oil will be mainly palm oil. This brings us back to the earlier point that food and chemical uses of palm oil also need to be sustainable. RSPO (Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil) tries hard to promote sustainably certification to the food and chemicals sectors and international brands are listening, but there is reluctance by some to pay the extra for RSPO certified palm oil. There are other sustainability schemes for palm oil which are even stricter on no-deforestation than RSPO, like ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) and RSB (Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials). So to ensure a better future for all biofuels, Europe now needs to publicly take the lead in advocating sustainability certification for all uses of palm oil, even if this is on a voluntary basis. 

Published: 30 October 17

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