Destroying Indonesia's virgin forests to protect the climate?

Germany continues to believe in the fiction that palm oil obtained from South East Asia to blend with diesel fuel is ecologically sound and climate-friendly. But that belief is mistaken, as Inge Altemeier and Stefan Buchen found out

By Inge Altemeier & Stefan Buchen

"There cannot be a right life amidst wrongs." We may have heard this famous saying by the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno one too many times. But it can most definitely be lobbed at Germany's palm oil policy.

Germany imported more than 500,000 tons of palm oil for use as biofuel in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available. As a result, the rainforests in Indonesia and other countries in South East Asia are being decimated to make way for more and more palm oil plantations.

The large tropical islands of Sumatra and Borneo, once a paradise of biodiversity while also serving as giant natural carbon sinks, have been transformed into agro-industrial complexes. If we let our gaze wander over the island lowlands, palm oil plantations stretch toward the horizon as far as the eye can see.

Millions upon millions of tons of CO2 are thus escaping into the atmosphere. The lush rainforest used to bind much more of the climate-damaging gas than a palm oil plantation sprawling across the same area. Some of the destroyed rainforests grew on peat soils, additional carbon sinks that have now been burnt up.

Indonesian rainforests under threat

In 2015, when slash-and-burn agriculture caused huge fires to break out on Sumatra and Borneo, 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.

Tom Kirschey, Naturschutzbund Deutschland – NABU (source: ARD/Panorama)
Fürchtet, dass es 2050 in Indonesien keine Regenwälder mehr geben wird, wenn die Produktion von Palmöl so weitergeht: Tom Kirschey vom NABU.

Indonesia's government relies on palm oil production to keep the country's economy afloat. President Joko Widodo's regime has announced that 30 percent of the fuel for the diesel cars driven by the 270 million Indonesians will soon come from palm oil.

"If things go on like this, there will be no more rainforests in Indonesia by 2050," says Tom Kirschey from Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), an expert on the economy and environment in South East Asia. In addition to producing for the domestic market, Indonesia and its smaller neighbour Malaysia are pushing for more and more exports.

China and India are major customers – as is the European Union. Europe buys some eight million tons of palm oil a year, more than half of it for fuel, mainly as an admixture for diesel used in vehicles. When a motorist fills up with 50 litres of diesel fuel, half a litre to a litre of palm oil is usually included. After rapeseed and biowaste, the raw material from South East Asia is the third most important biofuel. And the used grease from Asia that makes up a considerable proportion of the recycled biowaste also contains palm oil.

The idea here is that adding biofuels to diesel supposedly improves the carbon footprint of the transport sector. As palm oil replaces a small proportion of the petroleum that is the main component of diesel, cars allegedly save some CO2, the logic being that an oil palm "consumes" CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows.

The Europeans, with strong German participation, therefore decided to pursue this path starting in 2009. The EU stated in its "Renewable Energy Directive I" from that year that this policy would increase the demand for palm oil and thus "encourage" its cultivation in countries such as Indonesia.

At the same time, Brussels defined the downside, saying that European consumers would find it "morally unacceptable that their increased use of biofuels and bioliquids could have the effect of destroying biodiverse lands".

The EU Member States have in the meantime fallen from this pedestal of high moral standards. Ten years on, the EU Commission is forced to admit that precisely what it wanted to avoid as morally reprehensible has now come to pass: the rainforest has had to make way for oil palms. The Commission noted in March 2019 that an "expansion of production acreage (for palm oil, editor's note) to areas with high carbon stocks" is "being observed".

Palm oil has a major carbon footprint

Besides the loss of biodiversity, the EU also cites the second dramatic consequence of the palm oil boom: the biodiesel fuel made from palm oil has a large carbon footprint. Instead of saving CO2, even more is emitted than when burning normal diesel. According to an official EU report, greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation can reach significant levels, cancelling out any greenhouse gas savings.

A juvenile orangutan swinging through the Borneo rainforest (photo: ARD/Panorama)
Die Artenvielfalt auf den Tropeninseln Sumatra und Borneo ist durch die Palmölplantagen gefährdet. Indonesien sei inzwischen nicht nur weltgrößter Palmölproduzent, sondern habe die EU auch als größter Verbraucher von Palmöl für Biokraftstoffe überholt, hieß es in einer aktuellen Analyse der Deutschen Umwelthilfe (DUH).

Taking all factors into account, from planting the plantations on "carbon-rich soil", through the refining process, to transport from South East Asia to Europe, the carbon footprint for palm oil is even worse. Even quantifying the cumulative negative impact and all the rainforest areas that have fallen victim to palm oil is difficult.

The EU refers to several studies that share the same tenor in their assessment of the harmful climatic effects of palm oil though differing in detail. One study concludes that diesel from palm oil may be responsible for releasing more than twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as conventional diesel.

Palm oil allegedly "sustainable"

The German Biofuels Industry Association (VDB) cites such uncertainties in its continued defence of palm oil as a diesel admixture. But the German lobbying association for renewable energy resources puts forth an argument that in its view carries even more weight: 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 to make use of all the resources at our disposal if we are to meet the 2030 climate targets of the EU and the Member States. Sustainably certified palm oil is part of these efforts," said Elmar Baumann, head of VDB, in an interview in Panorama. If we are to believe Baumann, the sustainability seal certifies that no rainforest was cleared for the palm oil delivered to petrol stations in Europe.

All the while, Baumann does not by any means deny that deforestation is generally taking place in Indonesia. But apparently not for European biodiesel. His view is supported by the economic and energy policy spokesman of the CDU parliamentary group, Joachim Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer noted in an interview with Panorama that he considered it "absolutely acceptable" to add palm oil to diesel if that palm oil is produced sustainably.

Indonesia supplies more than 90 percent of the palm oil used in Europe as climate-friendly biodiesel. What does the situation look like in the areas where the oil palms are grown? Doing independent research in Indonesia is practically impossible for Europeans. But we have been in contact for several years with investigative journalists on the ground, who have kept track of developments in Sumatra and Borneo for us.

Deforestation is continuing "sustainably"

A recent visit to Central Kalimantan, at the heart of Borneo, revealed that deforestation continues apace. Excavators are still pulling up trees. Oil palms are proliferating all around the remains of the rainforest. The oil produced here is certified as "sustainable". Signs indicate the certification. Ten years ago, when we toured this same region with our Indonesian colleagues, the rainforest here was bigger.

In the German government, the Ministry of the Environment, led by the SPD Party, is responsible for the issue of palm oil. In a statement, the ministry spokesman initially agreed with the criticism expressed in Panorama and likewise questioned the validity of sustainability certificates for palm oil:

"We are keeping a close watch over the use of palm oil in fuels," the spokesman told us, adding: "Biofuels from cultivated biomass – including palm oil – cause a great deal of CO2 emissions. The raw material is produced specifically for use in the fuel and may be imported from far away. Even biofuels certified as sustainable can have damaging effects on the environment and the climate. (...) The result is the deforestation of tropical rainforests or the drainage of wetlands – both of which are associated with high greenhouse gas emissions. This is often the consequence of palm oil plantations, for example."

Bruno Millienne, member of parliament for the liberal-conservative party "Mouvement democrate" (source: ARD/Panorama)
Hat im französischen Parlament ein Gesetz angestoßen, mit dem der Ökostatus von Palmöl in Frankreich abgeschafft wurde: der Abgeordnete Bruno Millienne.

Clear words. And yet the German government refuses to deny palm oil the status of a climate-friendly fuel. Until 2030, mineral oil dealers can carry on adding certified palm oil to diesel and have the alleged greenhouse gas savings credited to their accounts. This is permitted by the new EU "Renewable Energies" directive.

France no longer considers palm oil to be climate-friendly

France has responded quite differently to the devastating findings from palm oil cultivation in South East Asia. As of 1 January 2020, France no longer considers palm oil to be climate-friendly. "At some point you just have to say 'Stop!' says Bruno Millienne, member of parliament for the liberal-conservative party "Mouvement democrate". He proposed a corresponding amendment to the Assemblee Nationale.

"We now know that the cultivation of oil palms leads to deforestation. As a result, incredibly large amounts of CO2 escape into the air, heating up the atmosphere. We are at a point where we as parliamentarians need to be coherent and act according to the realities," Millienne explained in the Panorama interview. "These environmental issues have to take priority over petty day-to-day politics. This has to do with humanism. Do we want what is good for the planet or not? The question must be addressed across party lines," added the 60-year-old liberal-conservative delegate, who has several grandchildren. The German conservatives apparently do not want to deal with it.

When we asked CDU Party member Joachim Pfeiffer why Germany is not following France's example in its palm oil policy, he stood up abruptly and broke off the interview. Germany has reconciled itself to the biodiesel lie. The spokesman for the Ministry of the Environment said that the country would be promoting other raw materials such as plant waste more strongly.

He expressed the hope that this would reduce the ratio of palm oil in diesel. Biofuel lobbyist Elmar Baumann adopts a conciliatory tone, saying that the use of palm oil in diesel should not be expanded any further. The amount is to be "capped“, he says. In other words, the use of "certified" palm oil in German diesel engines will continue in the coming years, as if there could be a right life amidst wrongs.

Inge Altemeier & Stefan Buchen

© ARD/Panorama 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor