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European Commission biofuels proposal threatens wetlands and climate goals


Brussels, Belgium – The European Commission announced yesterday that it will not consider indirect land use change (ILUC) in sustainability requirements for biofuels. Wetlands International is deeply disappointed. This proposal undermines the objective of EU biofuels policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the additional decision to limit the use of food crops as fuel is welcome, the omission of ILUC factors has direct detrimental consequences for both wetlands and climate.

As part of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), the European Commission was required to review the impact of ILUC on greenhouse gas emissions and propose legislative action for minimising that impact. Wetlands International has consistently called on the Commission to support the inclusion of ILUC factors in order to account for the full climate impacts of biofuels. The Commission proposal fails to address these serious issues and we call on the European Parliament and Member States to do so.

Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International stated, “This is a missed opportunity for the European Commission to show leadership in climate change mitigation. Instead, as imported biofuels are counted as zero emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, this proposal would perversely allow the EU to claim credits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions while it is actually enhancing the destruction of the world’s most important carbon stores, not to mention the loss of high biodiversity values. At the rate tropical peatswamp forests in places like Sarawak, Malaysia are converted to plantations - 8% per year- there won’t be any left in 2020, when the Commission foresees stronger action.”

The EU biofuels policy is one of the main drivers of the rapidly growing demand for palm oil and other biofuels. The related expansion of oil palm production in Southeast Asia comes largely at the expense of tropical rainforests and high-carbon peatlands. Drainage of peatlands for oil palm plantations results in oxidation of the peat carbon stores which have accumulated over thousands of years, leading to huge greenhouse gas emissions. Use of palm oil produced on peat as a biofuel results in a carbon footprint up to eight times larger than the use of fossil fuels. The Commission proposal turns a blind eye to the dire consequences of the direct and indirect land use change caused by the expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production.

“The Commission’s biofuel ‘solution’ for climate change is worse than the original problem posed by fossil fuel emissions” Silvius added. “By ignoring the ILUC factor in biofuels, it turns into a bookkeeping scam – a cover up of the failure of the EU to reduce its emissions in an appropriate manner. Moreover, it aggravates the problem by enhancing carbon emissions and thus climate change, while imposing additional costs on taxpayers.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands higher than fossil fuels

It is clear from a growing number of scientific studies that ILUC must be taken into account in order to achieve real greenhouse gas reductions from biofuels. An EU commissioned study confirmed biodiesel feedstocks, including Southeast Asian oil palm, South American soybeans and EU rapeseed, have larger overall GHG emissions than conventional diesel fuel due to the conversion of forests and peatlands to agricultural lands. This study included a conservative emissions estimate for the conversion of peatlands for oil palm (55 t CO2/ha/y), and recent peer-reviewed research shows this is much higher (86 t CO2/ha/y) – making the impact of palm oil emissions even worse for climate change.

The continuing conversion of peatlands for biofuel production has profound implications for global GHG emissions and efforts to address climate change. Peat soils, which cover only 3% of the global land surface, store massive amounts of carbon: two times more than all the world’s forests combined. [1] Tropical peat swamps store on average 3000 tonne C/ha or about 20 times more carbon than tropical forest vegetation. [2] Current emissions from peatland drainage contribute 6% of global CO2 emissions. [3]

Peatlands threatened by palm oil expansion

Two million hectares of palm oil plantations already exist on peat soils, and expansion is expected to grow to as much as 6.2 Mha by 2020. [4] In Malaysia, for example, virtually all of the most suitable lands have been turned into plantations and the race is now on to develop the last ‘available’ lands, much of it the low-lying peatlands of Sarawak. [5] Studies conducted by Wetlands International and SarVision on the state of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests from 2005 to 2010 found that in just five years one-third of all its peat swamp forests (353,000 ha) were cleared and that a conservatively estimated 65% was conversion to oil palm plantations.


For more information:

Marcel Silvius
Wetlands International
E-mail: Marcel.silvius @
Tel. +31 (0) 318 660 924



[1] Parish, F. Sirin, A., Charman, D., Joosten, H., Minayeva, T. and Silvius, M. (eds) 2008. Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change. Main report. Global Environment Centre, Kuala Lumpur and Wetlands International Wageningen

[2] Miettinen, J., Hooijer, A., Tollenaar, D., Page, S., Malins, C. et al. 2012. Historical Analysis and Projection of Oil Palm Plantation Expansion on Peatland in Southeast Asia. ICCT White Paper Number 17.

[3] Joosten, H., Tapio-Biström, M-L., Tol, S. (eds). 2012. Peatlands – guidance for climate change mitigation by conservation, rehabilitation and sustainable use. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

[4] Page, S., Morrison, R., Malins, C., Hooijer, A., Rieley, J. & Jauhiainen, J. 2011. Review of peat surface greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. ICCT White Paper 15. Washington: International Council on Clean Transportation.

[5] Wetlands International, 2010. A Quick Scan of Peatlands in Malaysia. Selangor, Malaysia. 

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