To burn or not to burn – Juncker’s palm oil conundrum

(Transport and Environment, 1 Feb 2019) Should Europeans be forced to burn palm and soy in their cars in the name of EU climate policy? This is the simple question the European Commission needs to answer today.

By William Todts, Executive Director of Transport & Environment, the European federation of green transport NGOs

If you’d ask ordinary citizens, environmentalists, farmers, business leaders or scientists the answer would invariably be a resounding “of course we shouldn’t”. However, it increasingly looks as if the EU executive is about to give the green light for another decade of uncontrolled palm oil burning by Europe’s diesel fleet. Not because it’s good for the climate or because Europeans want it – 70% are against – but because the Commission is afraid about upsetting its trade partners.

The palm oil diesel saga started in 2009 when the EU adopted a green energy law to mandate the use of biofuels. Despite warnings from environmentalists the law did not distinguish between good and bad biofuels, leading to a huge surge in palm oil biodiesel, the cheapest but also the environmentally worst form of biodiesel. The word huge here is not an exaggeration: more than half of all the palm oil imported into Europe is now burned in our cars and trucks.

Europe’s biggest palm oil problem is not Nutella, Oreo cookies or lipstick. It’s diesel.

We are literally burning some of the most pristine and valuable rainforests in the world in our tanks. So when the EU’s green energy law was updated in 2018, the European Parliament wisely and quasi-unanimously decided to eliminate palm oil from the EU green energy law. There was a lot of support from national governments for this but the Commission prevented a deal, committing instead to propose, by February 2019, a delegated act to phase out the use of biofuel causing deforestation (so-called ‘high ILUC risk’ biofuels). This, it said, would be more objective, more robust and more scientific.

So whilst the palm oil issue isn’t of Juncker’s making, it is now his responsibility. And much like the Gordian knot, there are essentially two ways he can deal with the issue: either he gets tangled up in the knot and gets nowhere; or he makes a clear-cut choice. As president Juncker will know, Alexander did not become the Great by rearranging the Gordian knot a little bit – he cut right through it. To help the Commission make the right choice, 15 of Europe’s largest environment organisations, T&E included, launched the campaign #NotInMyTank to end palm and soy in diesel. An unprecedented 600,000 Europeans have joined our call so far.

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Transport and Environment, 1 Feb 2019: To burn or not to burn – Juncker’s palm oil conundrum