Palm oil: a decisive vote of the European Parliament

, by Sarah Bonnefoix, Translated by Louise Guillot

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Palm oil: a decisive vote of the European Parliament
A fire was launched in a primary forest to replant oil palms - Kalimantal Occidental, Borneo, Indonesia CC Rainforest Action Network - via Flickr

2018 appears to be a decisive year for environmental policy in Europe. Indeed, the European Commission launched the Clean Energy Package in November 2016, which was then followed by a concertation among Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to define the framework of the European Union’s energy policy until 2023. The sensitive project aiming at regulating the palm oil consumption within the EU is among the burning current issues. The vote on this topic during the plenary session was thus announced as decisive.

As part of the vote on the Renewable Energy Directive, which took place during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 17 January, the MEPs had to decide whether to forbid the use of palm oil in the production of biofuels until 2021, or not. [1] This step forward fits in with the direct trajectory of the energy and environmental policy the EU has developed over the past few years. The Commission put a first milestone on 22 January 2014, when it released its “2030 climate and energy framework”.

This communication sets a framework for European policies in the field of climate and energy from 2020 to 2030. However, the call to regulate palm oil consumption within the Union is not new. In 2017 already, the European Parliament enlightened the danger related to the consumption of palm oil by adopting a resolution inviting the EU to stop using vegetable oils to produce biofuels until 2020. This same resolution also proposed to put in place a unique certification system for palm oil, in order to track and allow in the European market palm oil stemming only from sustainable productions. Indeed, one should bear in mind that palm oil currently avoids any regulation at the European level, even though the scientific community proved its negative consequences on biodiversity. Moreover, its consumption more than doubled in the world compared to the beginning of the century.

Political agreement

The MEPs’ proposal to ban entirely the use of palm oil in the production of biofuels for transport until 2021 seems to reach consensus among the different political parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Quoted by Euractiv, Bas Eickout, Green MEP from the Netherlands, said that “the use of palm oil needs to be reduced to zero until 2021” and that “all proposals made by the major political groups go in this direction”. He adds that “it seems that the political question of palm oil will obtain a clear majority”. In the same perspective, the European People’s Party (EPP) spokesperson indicated that “the EPP is ready to accept the disposition within which the use of palm oil will be reduced to zero until 2021”. A source from the Socialists and Democrats goes in this direction as well: “regarding palm oil, we also support a total ban until 2021”.

Supported by NGOs and European ethanol producers

In addition, the proposal to ban the use of palm oil for transports has been massively supported by European ethanol producers. According to some associations, they “are not responsible for the worries concerning oil palm cultivation”. Still according to these associations, the proposal is indeed an opportunity to clarify one thing: all biofuels are not equal. Ethanol emits 64% less greenhouse gas than regular fossil fuels and is, in the majority of the cases, cultivated locally, which is not conflicting with food crops.

Political and judicial obstacles

Nevertheless, the road is still long before the final adoption of such a resolution. In a first phase, the proposal needs to reach an agreement among the 28 Member States, which is essential to finalise the adoption of the revised directive on renewable energies. Then, the producing countries, such as Malaysia or Indonesia, have the right to lodge an appeal with the World Trade Organisation (even if this plea will have no suspensive effect on the European measure). Finally, one should bear in mind that multiple criticisms underline that EU policies always favour deforestation. A couple of months ago, the former Executive Secretary for Climate at the United Nations, Christina Figueres, already called the EU to take serious measures to fight against growing deforestation in the south hemisphere. The EU, as a massive importer of food products causing deforestation, should “go the next step” and develop an action plan on deforestation.

The vote on the Renewable Energy Directive in Strasbourg is thus at the heart of European concerns regarding environmental and energy policies. A positive vote would be a victory from a political perspective, which would satisfy the different interests of the parties involved, but it would also bring some true step forwards for the environment.


[1Editorial note: on 17 January, the European Parliament decided to ban palm oil from fuels by 2021, and to cap biofuels stemming from food crops to the level of 2017 consumption.

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