European pressure for a more sustainable palm oil production

At their plenary session this month, the Members of Parliament voted on a resolution calling on the European Commission to work towards a European certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market.

This political move comes at a most opportune moment for us here at 2.-0 LCA consultants; as we just this week are able to announce that our crowd-funded initiative: LCA of RSPO certified palm oil is up and running with currently 12 palm oil producing/using industries as members of the club. The initiative aims to compare the environmental profile of certified palm oil to non-certified palm oil in the market. Our project will be based on the already existing certification scheme by RSPO – but we hope to produce evidence, using life cycle thinking, that will also be relevant for a possible European certification scheme.

The Members of Parliament also call for a ‘phasing out of the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation by 2020’. In our previous analysis of various biofuels, including several different vegetable oils, we found that a significant hotspot in the biodiesel product system is indeed indirect land use (deforestation) (Schmidt and Brandão 2013; Schmidt 2015). Regardless of which vegetable oils are used for biodiesel, our findings indicate that an increase in the use of biodiesel will lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mainly because of the consequences of the indirect land use. On top of that, biodiesel from vegetable oils is associated with high impacts on biodiversity: deforestation caused via indirect land use changes.

In their press release the European Parliament also note that a major use for the European imports of palm oil is for biofuels. Kateřina Konečná, who edited the report on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests for the European parliament says that she hopes for a ‘total’ phase out of this use for palm oil. We have previously demonstrated that palm oil is the oil affected when there are changes in the demand for any unspecified vegetable oil (Schmidt and Weidema 2008). Therefore we believe that it is rather the entire market of vegetable oils for biofuels that needs to be discussed. Naturally, palm oil can be a suitable starting place for the discussion, and in this light we are hoping for a balanced response by European Commission.

In a market where everything is linked and palm oil is the additional supply for any demand for vegetable oil, a specific political ban on palm oil is not an efficient way forward. A better approach for the European Commission would be to reconsider the targets to increase the European use of biofuels in light of the evidence of its actual environmental consequences. Or at the very least to ensure that the sustainability criteria (See DG-Energy) for the European use of biofuels includes indirect land use effects. This is needed in order to actually reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – with consequences for the entire market of biofuels.

Instead of banning palm oil, we emphasize that a more efficient way to reduce the environmental impact is to collaborate with the palm oil industry. In fact, palm oil is the only major oil in the market, where there is a formalised way to make a difference with regard to deforestation, i.e. demanding oil from industries which ensure nature conservation within their concessions as well as in their surrounding communities.

Schmidt J (2015). Life cycle assessment of five vegetable oils. Journal of Cleaner Production 87:130‑138

Schmidt J, Brandão M (2013). LCA screening of biofuels – iLUC, biomass manipulation and soil carbon. This report is an appendix to a report published by the Danish green think tank CONCITO on the climate effects from biofuels: Klimapåvirkningen fra biomasse og andre energikilder, Hovedrapport (in Danish only). CONCITO, Copenhagen.

Schmidt J, Weidema B P (2008). Shift in the marginal supply of vegetable oil. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 13(3):235‑239.