Why the EU should end policy support for biofuels based on vegetable oils

24 January 2019

Palm oil, soy oil and other vegetable oils: although their use in biodiesel was meant to help curbing climate change, their carbon emissions are on average 1,8 times higher than those of fossil diesel. Under current governance realities it is therefore irrational to uphold EU or national policy support to the use of vegetable oils to be put in the diesel tank or heating installations as a green alternative.

In spite of good intentions, biofuels score worse than fossiel diesel. Globiom (2015) shows that emissions from first-generation biodiesel on rapeseed are 1.2 times higher than those of fossil diesel. The figures for soy and palm oil are even more alarming: soy oil in biofuel causes 2 times the emissions of its fossil equivalent, while the emissions from palm oil in biofuel are 3 times higher than those by fossil diesel.

Alarming emission rates because of indirect land use changes

These alarming emission rates are mainly caused by the indirect land use changes (ILUC) they cause. ILUC means that the additional, policy driven, use of palm oil and other vegetable oil, even if certified with a robust standard, pushes other plantations into nature areas, sometimes with burning involved. Deforestation, peat land or savannah conversion and burning cause huge greenhouse gas emissions.

Under current governance realities it is therefore irrational to uphold EU or national policy support to the use of vegetable oils to be put in the diesel tank or heating installations as a green alternative.

End policy support for high ILUC biofuels

One may think the issue is already solved ("EU bans palm oil"). Yet these days in Brussels are crucial to put these insights into practice by a delegated act. The recently agreed new Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) requires the European Commission to adopt by February 1st 2019, a delegated act for determining the high indirect land-use change risks of biofuels feedstocks.

The share of the identified high ILUC risk biofuels’ feedstocks will be capped until 2023, based on their 2019 levels, and then will be completely phased out of the renewable targets by the year 2030. It is therefore important this delegated act recognizes palm and soy oil as high ILUC biofuels, so their expansion can be limited.

Regard all vegetable oils as high ILUC

Last year's IUCN report Palm oil and biodiversity (Meijaard et al, 2018) points to the fact that palm oil is by far the most productive vegetable oil, and that replacement by other oils would take more land. This would negatively affect biodiversity, for example in the case of soy oil, but also in case of the European oils. Since vegetable oils are closely interlinked on the global market, all vegetable oils should be regarded high ILUC as a category, also when defining national policies on renewable energy, to avoid biodiversity loss caused by the interchangeability of vegetable oils. 

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More articles by: Heleen van den Hombergh