Yesterday’s EU biofuels vote bad news for orangutans

This morning I awoke to the sound of bearded pigs rustling in the undergrowth and gibbons singing from the treetops. Not too far from the boundary of the forest camp, a male orangutan crashed through the trees and then bellowed a long call that carried for over a mile.

5039, orangutan, Sabangau

The Sabangau rainforest is home to the world’s largest populations of orangutans and Southern Bornean gibbons, but places like this are increasingly under threat across southeast Asia from conversion to oil palm, a crop that’s used to produce biofuels for foreign markets like Europe.

Yesterday, Members of the European Parliament took a vote on new legislation surrounding biofuels, the supposedly green fuels that go into vehicles.

A growing body of scientific evidence now shows that these fuels (many from food-crops) push up food prices and in many cases are actually more polluting than the fossil fuels they replace.

Yesterday, MEPs voted to limit the contribution of food-based biofuels to six percent of transport fuels. This limit is too high, as it’s above current production levels. A cap at five per cent was rejected, and in fact a cap at zero would be best.

There are two key reasons many biofuels are more polluting than fossil fuels. First, they are often grown where there’s rainforest or other land that’s high in carbon. This carbon is released when the land is converted.

Second, they displace food crops, which have to be grown elsewhere, and these food crops replace carbon-rich environments such as rainforests.

These two reasons, direct land use change and indirect land use change, significantly affect how much carbon dioxide you save when you use a biofuel. Indirect land use change is a key factor, but is currently completely ignored in all calculations linked to whether a biofuel is legitimate for support. And yesterday MEPs voted to only begin counting ILUC in 2020. So until then we’ll continue to pretend that biofuels like palm oil are less polluting than petrol or diesel.

Palm oil is one of the worst offenders, grown in countries like Indonesia, rich in tropical rainforests whose trees and soil are very rich in carbon. According to estimates by the International Food Policy Research Institute, palm oil is around 20% more polluting than conventional petrol or diesel.

What’s more, palm oil is now the single largest factor contributing to deforestation in Indonesia, and new research commissioned by Friends of the Earth shows that palm oil makes up 20% of all European biodiesel. This is a far higher percentage than previously thought.

The vote by MEPs yesterday leaves the door open for palm oil to make an even bigger contribution to biofuels targets across the EU.

Subsidies are the lifeline of the biodiesel and bioethanol industries across Europe. MEPs have opted to keep these industries alive by denying the scientific truth: that most biofuels are bad for wildlife, the climate and people. Biofuels will continue to pollute the atmosphere more than petrol or diesel, all under the veil of an emissions-reducing policy, and will increasingly threaten the homes of animals like the orangutans and gibbons that live here in Borneo.

Most advice about palm oil is to avoid products in your supermarket that contain it. But we’re citizens as well as consumers, and we need to write and speak to our MPs and MEPs, to tell them that we don’t think that destroying our shared, global natural heritage is acceptable when it’s supposed to be preventing climate change but is actually making the situation worse. It’s one of the most backwards policies I’ve ever come across and for the sake of the 60,000 remaining wild orangutans alone, it has to stop.

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