Palm oil is part of the deforestation problem


Picture of Kateřina Konečná
Kateřina Konečná

MEP for the European parliament and GUE/NGL coordinator of Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee

Kateřina Konečná is an MEP for the European Parliament and GUE/NGL coordinator of Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee

Tropical ecosystems, particularly rain forests – which account for just 7% of the world’s vegetation – are facing their greatest challenge since the beginning of human existence. Not only is valuable vegetation being lost, but many animal species too, including some that have not yet been discovered. All this loss is due to the cultivation of palm oil. However, it does not stop with just rainforests.

Adjacent marine ecosystems are also under growing pressure. Irreplaceable groundwater is being lost and rivers are drying out. Massive peat and forest fires are also occurring, and the climate is drastically changing in these affected areas.

Palm oil cultivation does not only affect tropical flora and fauna; it also affects local inhabitants, whose livelihoods are closely linked to the ecosystems that are being destroyed. Palm oil is becoming the root of numerous social and economic conflicts and its cultivation is occurring rapidly. We need an immediate response.

It is time to face the facts. The European Union is clearly part of the problem of global deforestation. As Europeans, we support deforestation by flows of investments and finance from within the EU. Capital is often used for starting palm oil plantations and the final product is used in member states in the form of biofuels, so that we can drive ‘ecologically’.

The European Union is clearly part of the problem of global deforestation

73% of global deforestation arises from the clearing of land for agricultural commodities, with 40% of global deforestation caused by conversion to large-scale mono-cultural palm oil plantations. In light of this information, the European parliament insisted that the use of energy from renewable sources (RED II) where contribution from biofuels and bioliquids are present, shall be 0% from 2021. This is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the European Commission has a different agenda as they attempt to negotiate a free trade agreement with Indonesia and Malaysia, further contributing to the problem of deforestation. Negotiators agreed to phase out palm oil by 2030, instead of 2021, starting with a freeze on existing quantities of imported palm.

The debate is long on whether the EU is doing enough to prevent deforestation and maintaining its commitment to the Paris agreement. Thanks to the European Commission, we will still put palm oil into biofuels and live with the fact that this is happening for the next decade. When European money is linked to companies engaging in deforestation, it does not paint a bright picture of Europe.

The EU must now come forward with an action plan against deforestation. It is absolutely essential. Many NGO´s have advocated for it for some time, but the Commission doesn’t seem eager to instigate a proposal.

The EU is the second largest palm oil importer globally, with around 7m tonnes coming in per year. One possible way forward is to initiate closer ties and increased cooperation around certification schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

However, the sustainability criteria of these certifications are often subjected to criticism. Ecological and social integrity are sometimes not prioritised; therefore the European Commission must ensure that independent auditing and monitoring of certification schemes are carried out. EU markets must meet all quotas and remain sustainable in its activities regarding the importation of palm oils. Additionally, sustainability in this sector cannot be addressed by voluntary measures and policies alone: companies should be subject to binding rules and a mandatory certification scheme.

The EU is the second largest palm oil importer globally, with around 7m tonnes coming in per year

The environment is not the only concern when analysing the palm oil industry. Development, forced labour, indigenous rights, social problems and corruption are concerns this sector is linked too. We must create a global solution based on the collective responsibility of many actors, including EU member states and other international organisations, financial institutions, the governments of producing countries, indigenous people and local communities, national and multi-national businesses involved in the sector, distributers that process palm oil, consumer associations and NGOs. All of these actors must play a part by coordinating their efforts in order to resolve the serious problems linked to the unsustainable production and consumption of palm oil.

If the EU wants to be seen as a champion of human rights and as a protector of the environment, it cannot disregard the issue of deforestation, especially in the case of palm oil. We must see the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals implemented.

Many have made commitments in the areas of zero-deforestation production and trade of commodities, zero-conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, respect for human rights, transparency, traceability, third party verification and responsible management practices. However, there should be new standards of palm oil imports entering the EU, with no actor exempt.

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