Trouble in palm land

One of the issues hotly debated in the ICIS oleochemicals conference that I attended last week in Berlin is the sustainability of palm oil. Palm oil and palm kernel oil account for majority of oleochemical feedstock used most especially in Southeast Asia.

Non-government organizations such as Friends of the Earth and GreenPeace have increasingly sounded the alarm on the unsustainability of palm oil stating fast deforestation in Southeast Asia especially Indonesia to make way for palm plantations.

One speaker from a biofuel/oleochemical producer in Belgium noted the tightening scrutiny of European Union officials in the use of palm oil and derivatives for food, biofuel and chemical production in Europe because of NGO reports of the unsustainability of palm oil. I thought I heard him mention that European regulators might even use Google map to check if palm producers are properly using land for their plantations (such as not destroying forest or using peatlands). Hmmmm.

To counteract the growing negativity of palm oil production, producers and consumers of palm oil have organized the Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) association and one of their goal is to form a certification proving that their palm oil products are sustainable.

Unfortunately, a recent news from the Guardian caught my attention (hence this blog post) about RSPO members having issues on setting up their sustainability standards. The problem is including calculations of greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions from land use) in their standards. Some RSPO members especially palm plantation owners are reportedly against this idea. They reasoned out that the economic and social benefits of palm oil are being eclipsed by environmental issues associated to the industry.

Palm oil, by the way, is not the only biofuel feedstock that could be affected by potential greenhouse gas emissions regulations being mulled by various governments worldwide.

Presenters at the ICIS oleochemicals conference also talked about the possible effects (especially in the US) of the new Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS2) being proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under RFS2, renewable fuels must reduce GHG emissions by 50% compared with the conventional diesel they are replacing. It must also take into account indirect emissions such as land use.

The US biodiesel industry states that soybean oil-based biodiesel will not be able to meet the EPA’s 50% requirement and therefore would restrict most of biodiesel feedstock to animal fats and restaurant grease.

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