Which Indian vehicles use biodiesel

Biodiesel: Destruction of primeval forests for the climate

Status: 05.03.20 12:35 p.m.
by Inge Altemeier and Stefan Buchen

"There is no right life in the wrong one." The bon mot of the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno may have been overused every now and then. However, it is rightly allowed to hurl it at the German palm oil policy. Germany sticks to the fiction that palm oil, which is obtained from Southeast Asia as an admixture for diesel, is ecologically good and climate-friendly. Germany imported more than 500,000 tons of palm oil as biofuel in 2018, the year with the most recent statistics.

Indonesian rainforests in danger

The rainforest in Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia is being decimated, and oil palms are expanding. The large tropical islands of Sumatra and Borneo, once paradises of biodiversity and huge stores of carbon dioxide, have been transformed into agro-industrial complexes. If you let your gaze wander over the lowlands of these islands, you can see palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see. Millions and millions of tons of CO2 escape into the atmosphere. Because the lush rainforest had bound much more of the climate-damaging gas than a palm oil plantation of the same area. Some of the destroyed rainforests stood on peat soils, additional CO2 stores that were burned out as well. In 2015, when huge fires broke out on Sumatra and Borneo due to the slash and burn, Indonesia became the world's fourth largest emitter of CO2. Similar fires blazed in 2019. The greenhouse gas statistics for the past year are not yet available.

Indonesia's government is relying on the production of palm oil to make economic progress. The government of President Joko Widodo has announced that 30 percent of the fuel that the diesel cars of the 270 million Indonesians consume will soon come from palm oil. "If things continue like this, there will be no more rainforests in Indonesia in 2050," says Tom Kirschey from the Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), who is very familiar with the economy and the environment in Southeast Asia. In addition to production for the domestic market, Indonesia and its smaller neighbor Malaysia are promoting exports. China and India are big customers - and so is the European Union. Europe buys around eight million tonnes of palm oil a year, more than half of it for fuel, mainly as an admixture for diesel to power vehicles. When a motorist fills up with 50 liters of diesel, half a liter to a liter of palm oil is usually included. After rapeseed and biowaste, the raw material from Southeast Asia is the third most important "biofuel". Used fats from Asia, which in turn contain palm oil, make up a significant proportion of the reused biowaste.

The idea behind it: by adding biofuels, the transport sector should improve its carbon footprint. Because palm oil replaces a small portion of the conventional petroleum, which is mainly made up of diesel, cars should save some CO². Because an oil palm "consumes" CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. In 2009, the Europeans decided to take this route, with a strong participation from Germany. In the "Renewable Energy Directive I", the EU says that this policy will increase the demand for palm oil and thus "favor" the cultivation of palm oil in countries like Indonesia. At the same time, Brussels defined the height of the fall. European consumers will find it "morally unacceptable" (sic) if palm oil is produced at the expense of areas with high biodiversity. The EU member states have now fallen from this pedestal of high moral standards. Because ten years later, the EU Commission has to admit: What one did not want because it was morally reprehensible, has now come true. The rainforest had to give way to the oil palms. The "expansion of the production areas (for palm oil, editor's note) to areas with high carbon stocks" is "to be observed", stated the commission in March 2019.

The carbon footprint of palm oil is bad

In addition to the loss of biodiversity, the EU also names the second dramatic consequence of the palm oil boom: the carbon footprint of biodiesel made from palm oil is poor. No CO2 is saved, but rather more CO2 is emitted than when burning normal diesel. "The greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation can reach significant levels and nullify the greenhouse gas savings," the EU writes verbatim. If one takes into account all the factors from the creation of the plantations on "carbon-rich soil" through the refinery process to the transport from Southeast Asia to Europe, the carbon footprint of palm oil turns out to be even more negative. Just the exact quantification of the negative effect and the rainforest areas that fall victim to palm oil is difficult. The EU relies on several studies that have the same tenor in assessing the harmful effects of palm oil on the climate, but differ in detail. One study comes to the conclusion that diesel can release more than twice as much carbon dioxide from palm oil than conventional diesel.

Palm oil supposedly "sustainable"

The industry association for biofuels (VDB) invokes such uncertainties in order to continue to justify the use of palm oil as an admixture. But the German lobby association for renewable energy resources has an argument that is even more weighty from its point of view: only palm oil with a sustainability seal is used for diesel. "It would be absurd not to use a raw material certified as sustainable. We need all means to meet the 2030 climate target of the EU and the member states. Sustainably certified palm oil contributes to this," says Elmar Baumann, head of the VDB, in the Panorama- Interview. If Baumann has its way, the sustainability seal proves that no rainforest has been cleared for the palm oil delivered to petrol stations in Europe. Baumann by no means denies that there is general deforestation in Indonesia. But the European biodiesel is not being cleared. He receives support from the economic and energy policy spokesman for the CDU parliamentary group, Joachim Pfeiffer. If it is produced sustainably, he thinks it is "absolutely acceptable" to add palm oil to diesel, says Pfeiffer in an interview with Panorama.

Indonesia supplies more than 90 percent of the palm oil used as climate-friendly biodiesel to Europe. What is it like in the growing areas? Free research in Indonesia is practically impossible for Europeans. But for years we have been in contact with Indonesian investigative journalists who have repeatedly examined developments in Sumatra and Borneo for us. A recent visit to Central Kalimantan, in the center of Borneo, shows: The deforestation continues. Excavators tear up trees. Oil palms spread around the remains of the rainforest. The oil obtained here is certified as "sustainable". Signs indicate this. Ten years ago, when we were already in the same area with our Indonesian colleagues, the rainforest was even bigger here.