Sustainable palm oil in Europe: a life cycle thinking alternative to the European approach

The European Parliament wants to ensure sustainable palm oil in Europe, demanding certification approved by Europe to all vegetable oils entering the European market. While this sounds logical, how about the use of vegetable oils? In this piece, our partner Jannick Schmidt displays his perspective on the European approach for sustainable palm oil production and proposes an alternative approach based on life cycle thinking

Guest post by Jannick Schmidt – 2.-0 LCA Consultants, SimaPro partner Denmark

The European Approach Towards Sustainable Palm Oil Production

Earlier this year, the members of the European Parliament voted on a resolution calling on the European Commission to work towards a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market. The resolution approved by the European Parliament calls the EU not only to introduce a single certification scheme for sustainable palm oil, but also to work towards ‘phasing out of the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation by 2020’. In a previous analysis of various biofuels, including several different vegetable oils, we found that a significant hotspot in the biodiesel product system is indeed indirect land use (deforestation) (Schmidt and Brandão 2013; Schmidt 2015). Regardless of which vegetable oils are used for biodiesel, the findings of the study indicate that an increase in the use of biodiesel will lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mainly because of the consequences of the indirect land use. Furthermore, biodiesel from vegetable oils is associated with high impacts on biodiversity; because of the deforestation caused via indirect land use changes.

Why Phasing Out Palm Oil for Biofuels Might Not Be the Answer

In their press release, the European Parliament also note that a major use for the European imports of palm oil is for biofuels. Kateřina Konečná, who edited the report on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests for the European parliament says that she hopes for a ‘total’ phase out of this use for palm oil. We have previously demonstrated that palm oil is affected when there are changes in the demand for any unspecified vegetable oil (Schmidt and Weidema 2008). Therefore we believe that it is rather the entire market of vegetable oils for biofuels that needs to be discussed. Naturally, palm oil can be a suitable starting place for the discussion, and in this light, we are hoping for a balanced response by European Commission.

Life Cycle Thinking: A More Efficient Approach to Reduce Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil

In a market where everything is linked and palm oil is the additional supply for any demand for vegetable oil, a specific political ban on palm oil is not an efficient way forward. A better approach for the European Commission would be to reconsider the targets to increase the European use of biofuels in light of the evidence of its actual environmental consequences. Or at the very least to ensure that the sustainability criteria (See DG-Energy) for the European use of biofuels includes indirect land use effects. This is needed in order to actually reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – with consequences for the entire market of biofuels.

Instead of banning palm oil, we emphasize that a more efficient way to reduce the environmental impact is to collaborate with the palm oil industry. In fact, palm oil is the only major oil in the market, where there is a formalised way to make a difference with regard to deforestation, i.e. demanding oil from industries which ensure nature conservation within their concessions as well as in their surrounding communities.

About the author – Jannick Schmidt

Jannick H. Schmidt is an Environmental Management Engineer from 2002 from Aalborg University. Jannick obtained his Ph.D. in 2007 with a study on life cycle assessment of rapeseed oil and palm oil. He holds an assistant professorship at Aalborg University. His main areas of expertise and experience are life cycle assessments of agricultural products and waste management systems, and development of LCA methodology regarding system delimitation, LCIA methods for biodiversity and Input-Output-based LCA. Jannick has extensive teaching and supervision experience.

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