To combat climate change, EU must partner with ASEAN to tackle tropical deforestation

Shifts in attitudes towards palm oil by European nations could herald a new Europe-ASEAN partnership to tackle deforestation, writes Glenn Schatz.
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By Glenn Schatz

Glenn Schatz is a member of the CSPO Advisory Board, a co-founder of ECORE Ventures and a former technical project manager at the United States Department of Energy

13 May 2021

While the EU’s decision to ban palm oil as a biofuel was a well-intentioned move to reduce deforestation, that ban ignores the progress made by some producer countries towards full sustainability. It has also had the unintended consequence of promoting the production of alternative, less eco-friendly alternatives. Fortunately, the EU has now begun to reconsider its position on palm oil. 

The European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union has released an analysis, ‘Trade and Biodiversity’, suggesting that it would be “more effective and less costly” if major palm oil producers were to “implement a moratorium on deforestation” instead of banning palm oil.

An opinion by the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs advanced this newfound perspective, encouraging ‘inclusive partnerships’ with the Global South to prevent deforestation while calling for new powers to criminalise deforestation.

“With increased consumer investment in sustainable and transparent supply chains, producers – for palm oil and other forest risk commodities – will have no choice but to render their industries sustainable”

Likewise, the UK’s new standards on forest risk commodities require companies to prove compliance in their supply chains to local standards of production, meaning that - for example - a British vendor selling a product containing Malaysian palm oil would have to prove their adherence to Malaysia’s sustainability scheme, the MSPO. 

Finally, in December, a Joint Working Group on Palm Oil was established at the 23rd ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting to increase understanding between the blocs. The Group convened its first meeting the following month, defining an ambitious agenda of research and cooperation. Such steps are understandably cautious but are nevertheless promising. 

The European Union is an essential player in any move to sustainability. Given the size of tropical forests, and their remoteness, tracking deforestation has been difficult at best. While producer countries like Malaysia are increasingly realising sustainable palm oil production, they need assistance from the developed world to enforce and expand their green policies. 

Satellite imaging arguably provides the best solution to identifying illegal logging and forest destruction; ASEAN cannot match the EU (or US) lead in space technology. This is why an EU-ASEAN partnership is necessary. There is already an example of how such technology could be deployed in the Global Forest Watch project, run by the World Resources Institute. The US-based Institute uses satellite mapping to track real-time deforestation. 

The findings include country-specific results that reveal a positive trend - a significant decrease in the rate of primary forest loss year-on-year for four years - for Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm oil producer. In 2020, for example, the levels of primary forest loss in Malaysia were at their lowest since 2004. Coincidentally, from January 2020, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification was made nationally mandatory, with penalties for non-compliance. 

Today, 89 percent of Malaysian palm oil is MSPO-certified while nearly 100 percent of its organised smallholders have received the MSPO certification. So why are such efforts not being supported by the European Union? 

While, unfortunately, we do not yet have the ability to coordinate environmental policies globally, we nevertheless have the advantage of massive economic blocs, like the EU and ASEAN, which can determine the world agenda. Moreover, concerted action by the EU and ASEAN will provide more than just a framework for the private sector; such efforts may well push civil society and academia to move in the same direction, and thereby change consumer opinions of palm oil. 

With increased consumer investment in sustainable and transparent supply chains, producers – for palm oil and other forest risk commodities – will have no choice but to render their industries sustainable. Where the European Union and ASEAN go, the world will follow. 

This article was published as part of the Sustainability First supplement by the Center for Sustainable Palm Oil Studies (CSPO). The full supplement is available on: