Certification of low ILUC-risk palm oil

As the European Commission prepares to set criteria to define both high and low ILUC (indirect land-use change) risk biofuels by the end of the month, the debate on palm oil as a driver of deforestation is coming back into the news.  The decision on the criteria is an important one because the Renewable Energy Directive for 2021- 2030 will phase out ‘high ILUC-risk’ feedstock whereas certified ‘low ILUC-risk’ biofuel will be exempt. 

The phenomenon of indirect land-use change has arisen because the European sustainability regulations for biofuels are actually strict, whereas there are none for food and chemicals using the same raw materials. Sustainability schemes have been approved by the European Commission to certify that palm oil for biofuel has not been grown on deforested, high carbon stock or bio-diverse land.  In the food and chemicals sector, sustainability schemes are entirely voluntary. Some food and chemicals companies deliberately use all certified palm oil, but not enough, so the supply of certified palm oil exceeds the demand. Many companies are buying palm oil from recently deforested land.

It is clear that Europe needs to discourage deforestation but the policy should be fair and based on evidence. Sustainability schemes have developed new ‘low ILUC-risk’ certification modules. These allow producers who increase yields from the same area of land, process more efficiently or only expand into degraded or unused land to claim that this increase is low-ILUC risk.  Palm oil that achieves this certification should not be discriminated against. 

The new low ILUC-risk certification will bring other benefits. It should put pressure on food and chemical companies to buy more certified palm oil, or even the new low ILUC-risk material. Countries in Europe are already engaging with industry to make commitments about purchasing more sustainably certified palm oil. This new certification will increase that ambition.

The alternatives, to ban palm oil in biofuels completely, or to ban its use from countries with significant deforestation, will demonise all palm oil use, even for food.  It will also provoke a trade war with countries whose economies depend on palm oil production. 

Palm is the highest yielding vegetable oil, so to replace it with other vegetable oils will take more land causing even more destruction. This was the conclusion of a report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2018. 

Certification is the fairest and most defensible route to both eliminating non-sustainable palm oil from food and ensuring that only low ILUC-risk palm oil goes into biofuel.

Published: 1 February 19

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