EU biofuel targets seen behind a deforested area as large as the Netherlands
About 4 million hectares (9 million acres) of forests, mostly in Southeast Asia and South America, have been cleared since 2011 – including about 10% of the orangutan’s remaining habitat, according to estimates from the Transport and Environment (T&E) campaign group.
This suggests that efforts to replace polluting fuels such as diesel with biofuels paradoxically increase carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet, said Laura Buffet, director of energy at T&E.
“A policy that was supposed to save the planet is destroying it,” she said. “We cannot afford another decade of this.”
The report analyzed biodiesel production and consumption data from three statistical and market analysis agencies – Oil World, Stratas Advisors and Eurostat.
It found that the EU’s demand for biodiesel required the cultivation of 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of palm trees in Southeast Asia and 2.9 million hectares (7 , 2 million acres) of soybeans in South America.
An EU spokesperson could not be reached immediately to comment on the report.
Struck by criticism of deforestation linked to the use of palm oil in biodiesel, the EU agreed in 2018 to phase out the use of palm oil in transport fuels by 2030.
But a substantial increase in the use of soybean oil in European biodiesel now threatens to shift deforestation from Southeast Asia to South America, the researchers noted.
Soybean oil used in biodiesel production rose 17% in 2020, while palm oil volumes increased only 4.4%, according to data in the report.
Since 2018, soybean oil in European energy systems has fallen from 34% of total soybean oil consumed in Europe to 44%, solely because of biodiesel, according to the report.
“This trend is troublesome because soybeans could easily become the new palm oil,” the researchers noted.
Soybeans have slightly lower field-to-wheel emissions than palm oil – but these are still twice as high as diesel emissions when direct and indirect forest loss is taken into account, according to the study.
The expansion of soybean cultivation is a major cause of the rapid increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and other critical ecosystems, accelerating climate threats as carbon-absorbing trees disappear, scientists say .
If the EU maintains its current biofuel policies, it will emit an additional 173 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from palm and soybeans by 2030, the report says, or 95 million more cars on the road in a year.
In 2020, diesel and gasoline consumption in Europe fell by 8.3% and 11.6% respectively, lockdowns from the Covid-19 pandemic having slowed travel and business, the T&E report notes.
But biodiesel use rose 1.3% in 2020, in line with an EU mandate for one-tenth of transport fuels to come from renewable energy by 2020, according to the report.
The EU aims to get around a quarter of its transport fuel needs by 2030 from renewable sources, including electric fuels, hydrogen and advanced biofuels made from waste and residues.
Up to 5.1% of this figure could come from plant biofuels, according to an analysis by the European Commission.
A final decision on the increase is expected on July 14 as part of a long-awaited EU climate package.