18 January 2018

Birka Wicke has been researching the harmful effects of palm oil for the past ten years

European ban on fuel made from palm oil: “It's not being grown in the right way”

Palmolieveld
Foto: Robert_ford @iStock

From 2021, palm oil will no longer be permitted as a biofuel in the EU. This was decreed by the European Parliament yesterday. This is good news, according to Birka Wicke, whose research focuses strongly on biofuels. “Palm oil in itself is not a bad thing; the problem stems from the way in which it is cultivated.”

Biofuels are certainly not always greener than fossil fuels. Huge swathes of rainforest are being cut down in Indonesia and Malaysia so that palm oil can be made, to such an extent that the net CO2 emissions for palm oil are as much as 80% higher than those of fossil fuels. For other biofuels made from crops, consumption is not permitted to increase.

Researcher Birka Wicke is not surprised that Europe is finally banning palm oil as a biofuel. “In 2008, our group already carried out a comprehensive study into the life cycle of palm oil and whether it was possible to generate energy from palm oil in a sustainable way. It became clear that everything depended on the land use. If deforestation occurs for a palm oil plantation, the emissions will always be higher than in the case of fossil fuels. However, if fallow land is used, it could actually have a very positive effect. It really depends on what kind of land is being used.”

A brighter future for so-called second-generation biofuels

All the same, the ban is not universal. Palm oil is also found in luxury products such as soap, ice cream and biscuits, and these are not being banned. “Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil on the planet, which explains why is it used so often. It goes without saying that forests are also cut down for this kind of palm oil, but I think many consumers are not sufficiently aware of this fact.”

Wicke's department foresees a brighter future for so-called second-generation biofuels. “These are fuels made from wood or grass, for example, for which no crops are consumed. Once again, the exact emissions greatly depend on all kinds of factors, but if it's done right, emissions could be reduced by 80% or more compared with fossil fuels. We feel this is where the main focus should lie.”