Science, not sanctions, will save our planet

Hard facts correct European palm oil misperceptions - and point the way to a sustainable biofuel strategy, argues Dr Nafeez Ahmed.
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By Dr Nafeez Ahmed

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the System Shift Lab, research fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems and an award-winning investigative journalist and change strategist.

03 May 2021

The world is confronted by two interrelated crises. The first is immediately urgent: ongoing deforestation is increasing the likelihood of future pandemics. As barriers between humans and wildlife decrease, greater interspecies contact means rising potential for dangerous disease transfer. The second is a systemic threat with terrible long-term repercussions. 

In 2019, the EU effectively prohibited imports of palm oil for biodiesel because of its alleged contribution to deforestation. While technically this is not an outright ban, it disincentivises businesses from importing palm oil under a shift toward renewable energy.

“Sadly, sustainable palm oil - which has recently made significant environmental progress largely unacknowledged in the West - bears the brunt of European regulations”

This is unfortunate, given that palm oil in Malaysia has shifted toward a far more sustainable regulatory infrastructure which has successfully seen deforestation decline from a million acres per year to fewer than 250,000 acres, as an analysis by The Chain Reaction Research shows. As such, the EU’s decision to ban the product is not just a short-sighted strategy, it’s also self-defeating. 

Careful examination of the evolution of the palm oil industry, particularly, but not only, in countries such Malaysia, reveals real green momentum. Malaysia’s government has developed mandatory national regulation, through the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) metric; meaning that a transition to zero deforestation palm oil is already underway. 

However, by banning palm oil, the EU is essentially forcing palm oil producers to believe there is no point in further sustainability investments. A ban provides greater incentives to producers to sell to other markets with less stringent environmental standards - if they have any at all. This is ultimately bad for the environment and does nothing to stop deforestation, even if it does not actually accelerate it. 
This is not least because the palm oil ban has no scientific basis. 

Overwhelmingly, peer-reviewed studies in leading scientific journals and associations - Nature Sustainability, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Current Biology, the Annual Review of Resource Economics - insist, time and again, that if consumers abandon palm oil, they will have no choice but to turn to alternative oilseeds. 

These have greater environmental impact, using far more land, water, fertiliser and pesticides, only to produce an equivalent amount of oil. To be unabashedly straightforward, the science proves that boycotting palm oil will devastate the environment, not protect it. Why then has Europe punished palm oil?

The palm oil ban may have been a protectionist move to shield its own biofuels industry despite significant scientific evidence of its environmental harms. There is some evidence suggesting that some of these biofuels may be of even worse quality than Malaysian and other sustainable palm oil; removing it from the equation therefore, while questionable from an environmental standpoint, certainly empowers the EU’s own dirty industries. After all, the EU Green Deal stipulates reducing carbon emissions from vehicles.

The means to do this, Europe has proposed, is by turning to biofuels, albeit primarily from European rapeseed. This will purportedly provide for renewable fuels, thereby reducing fossil fuel dependency and carbon emissions. Regrettably, however, most of the EU’s biofuels consumption relies on rapeseed-derived ethanol.

In the journal Environment, Development, and Sustainability, we learn that rapeseed-derived ethanol emits such high levels of carbon emissions that it does not satisfy the EU’s own sustainability criteria. Specifically, eight out of ten tests on local rapeseed biodiesel fail to show 35 percent greenhouse gas savings. 

What is perhaps more galling and more concerning is the process of deforestation in the West. Recent research published by the journal Nature Research showed a worrying increase in rates of deforestation in the EU. Between 2016-18, for example, the loss of biomass due to harvesting increased by almost 70 percent compared with the previous four years. 

The area of forest harvested also increased by 49 percent within a similar timeframe. The study blamed this increased deforestation rate on European demand for wood, including as a fuel. In fact, that “abrupt increase”, as the article termed it, threatens to undermine the EU’s own climate mitigation targets. Unfortunately, the EU’s focus is not where it should be. Rather than attend to domestic deforestation, the Union has blamed external commodities, foremost among them is palm oil. 

In light of this evidence, one could be forgiven for believing that the EU’s palm oil boycott is more concerned with shielding its biofuel industry from competitive alternatives than with preventing deforestation. This might help us to understand why palm oil is often viewed so much more negatively than other forest-risk commodities in the EU market. 

Palm oil is often lumped into the same category as these other forest-risk commodities, including beef and soy. However, the latter two, consumption of which are increasing, are far less regulated and rarely, if ever, governed by national legislation or enforceable sanctions. They massively contribute to worldwide deforestation and are as such also helping to drive global warming. 

Sadly, sustainable palm oil - which has recently made significant environmental progress largely unacknowledged in the West - bears the brunt of European regulations. Meanwhile, much as palm oil faces sanctions while alternative oil ethanol is given a free pass, beef and soy likewise receive almost no scrutiny. This is despite the fact that high-yield palm oil cultivation can produce more than 25 times as much oil as soy for the same area of farmland. 

The biggest global driver of deforestation-induced carbon emissions is beef, which totals some 34 percent of emissions. Statistics like these illustrate Europe has its priorities backwards. In fact, the EU-Mercosur trade deal has not received anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as palm oil, despite - as a recent CDP study finds - it being the most regulated forest-risk commodity. 

But there is evidence of change. A paper by the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union conceded that it would be more effective and less costly if palm oil producers such as Indonesia and Malaysia implemented a moratorium on deforestation.

“The EU’s decision to ban the product is not just a short-sighted strategy, it’s also self-defeating”

Fortunately, in the instance of the Malaysian sustainability metric, MSPO, that is exactly what is taking place. MSPO became mandatory within Malaysia on 1 January 2020, with fines for non-compliant producers. Currently, nearly 90 percent of Malaysian producers are certified under the scheme. There have been immediate and tangible results. Over the last four years, Malaysia has experienced annual decreases in deforestation, which is in part attributable to MSPO. 

In a similar vein, a recent report from the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs argued in favour of ‘inclusive partnerships’ with the Global South against deforestation. One such approach could be a partnership arrangement with producers such as Malaysia, which are demonstrating verifiable progress in sustainable palm oil.

Europe should work with, not alienate, palm oil producers who have committed to sustainable production, and collaborate with the Global South to improve its adherence to environmental and human rights standards. Genuinely sustainable palm oil could serve as a clean bridge fuel, competitive with EU fuels like rapeseed, as we transition to post-carbon economies. Given the ongoing pandemic threat, the disturbing reality of deforestation and the looming disasters of climate change, we have no more time to waste.

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: