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Palm oil ‘sustainability’ certification by European Commission will increase emissions and threaten peatlands


Brussels, Belgium – Wetlands International is deeply concerned about the European Commission's announced approval of a biofuel sustainability scheme for palm oil certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  This development will open the EU doors to palm oil under the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) without any guarantees that this will contribute to climate change mitigation or safeguard forests and tropical peatlands. 

Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International (and member of the RSPO Greenhouse Gas Working Group) stated, “This sustainability certification ignores and does nothing to prevent further conversion and drainage of peatlands and tropical rainforests for oil palm cultivation. It allows the EU to ‘cherry pick’ choosing the palm oil that meets the EU standard and closing its eyes to the indirect land use change caused by the business as usual of all the other oil palm plantations.”

Oil palm expansion on peatlands

Under the EC-approved RSPO RED scheme, a palm oil company that has both plantations that meet the EU standard as well as plantations that do not meet these standards (e.g. plantations on peat) can sell its palm oil from the eligible plantations as ‘sustainable’ biofuel to the EU and continue with business as usual on the other plantations. They could even expand their plantations on peatlands. This sustainability certification is therefore not helping in any way to reduce emissions, but allowing and could even encourage a pick-and-choose strategy that will enhance indirect land use change (ILUC), resulting in the continued destruction of tropical forests and peatlands.

Added Silvius, “This ‘cherry picking strategy’ is actually worse than the use of fossil fuels. The Commission’s own scientific research determined that when taking ILUC into account, palm oil has higher greenhouse gas emissions than fossil diesel and any other commonly used biodiesel feedstock. While palm oil can indeed be an excellent and sustainable biofuel, the only way to ensure that EU biofuel policies will result in reduced emissions is by creating a level playing field for both the biofuel and food sector.”

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.

Increased emissions counted as 'zero'

As imported biofuels are counted in the EU as zero emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, this scheme will perversely allow the EU to claim credits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions while it is actually turning a blind eye to the dire consequences of ILUC caused by the expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production involving the destruction of the world’s most important carbon stores (peat swamp forests and tropical rain forests), not to mention the loss of high biodiversity values. At the rate tropical peatswamp forests in places like Sarawak, Malaysia are converted to oil palm plantations - 8% per year- there won’t be any left in 2020, when the Commission foresees stronger action on ILUC.

RSPO standards need strengthening

RSPO (which is a voluntary certification scheme) has with this Renewable Energy Directive (RED) scheme developed a voluntary standard within its current standard (a ‘double standard’ instead of a level playing field). While the RSPO is currently reviewing its Principles and Criteria (P&C), the current RSPO standard does not have any specific criteria and indicators for GHG emissions and does not in any way discourage plantations on peat soil (the main source of high GHG emissions from the palm oil sector). Wetlands International is strongly involved and supporting the revision of the RSPO standard.

The current P&C the RSPO + RED scheme, however, will let all RSPO members off the hook, except those few that will actually sell palm oil as a biofuel to the EU, and even those companies can just sell biofuel from the few land-units that meet the RSPO RED standard and continue business as usual on their other plantations that cater to the food market. The approval of this scheme by the EU may derail the process in the RSPO for the revision of its overall P&C, as penetration of the EU market was one of the main drivers for the revision process.

For more information:

Read our letter to the EC regarding RSPO's application

See our analysis of RSPO's application


Marcel Silvius
Wetlands International
E-mail: Marcel.silvius @
Tel. +31 (0) 318 660 924 or Mobile: +31 (0)610 219 000


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