Palm Oil Monitor – Weekly Update 21st October 2019

ICAO: Is aviation a new palm-renewables battleground?

As reported in our last issue, a number of NGOs had made aviation fuel a policy issue – taking aim at palm oil. There were, of course, a number of problems with the claims made around renewable aviation fuels. The most critical of these being that – as far as we’re aware – there is currently no palm oil being used in aviation fuel. Anywhere.

But the background to the campaign by Rainforest Foundation Norway is as follows.

In the first week of October, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held its annual assembly in Montreal. The ICAO is a multilateral organisation under the auspices of the UN that coordinates policies and positions between country representatives when it comes to civil aviation. For example, its lays down rules and procedures on international air traffic or accident investigations.

At its most recent meeting, it was endorsing a way forward for the aviation industry to cut its carbon emissions globally. The key to this is the use of biofuels. Energy efficiency has always been a key plank of aviation – airlines will cut energy use wherever possible to maintain profitability. Biofuels are therefore paramount.

Within this path forward on sustainability was the question of the industry’s support for Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA is an accounting scheme for aviation emissions. It allows the use of sustainable aviation fuels produced from waste oil and biomass for carbon offsets.

But the use of that biomass needs to be certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomass (RSB). It is a reasonably strict protocol that does not provide a financial incentive for the use of sustainable aviation fuels.

So, what was Rainforest Foundation Norway’s objective?

There appeared to be two.

First was the general denigration of palm oil. RFN has never had a problem seeking complete ban of palm oil for certain uses, regardless of whether it is certified, supports smallholders or otherwise. Using the ICAO meeting as a platform is as good as any. A paper it published at the beginning of 2018 recommended a total halt on the use of palm-based biofuels globally.

Second was a pre-emptive move. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have signalled that they are putting resources into research for palm-based aviation fuel. Southeast Asia is a growing aviation market, and any demand for aviation fuel in that market will not likely be swayed by the environmental whims of European policymakers. Lobbying through the ICAO therefore makes a lot of sense for international objectives.

It’s worth mentioning that RFN does not take a similar position on soy-based biofuels, even though it has a higher deforestation footprint.

The RFN approach on aviation renewables has been so erroneous that it drew a stinging rebuke from the International Aviation and Travel Association:

the transparent attempt to discredit CORSIA through inaccurate assertions about SAF (sustainable Aviation Fuels) completely fails to stand up to any scrutiny. The media and the concerned public are invited to contact any of the members of the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection, who will confirm how the aviation industry and serious environmental groups are working together to ensure that sustainable fuels adhere to the highest environmental standards.

However, IATA misses the political point here. This isn’t about aviation, this is just about palm oil, plain and simple.  Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout joined the fray, criticising the ICAO for not being up to the ‘climate task’. In his view, the world should have the same rules on biofuels as the European Union. This sounds remarkably like the RFN view.


Eickhout says ‘Bring it On’

Dutch-Green European Member of the European Parliament, Bas Eickhout has thrown down a challenge to Malaysian and Indonesian WTO cases against the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), stating:

“To be very honest, bring it on on WTO … We have very clear environmental concerns, very clear environmental reasons why we say this [palm oil-based biodiesel] can’t be labeled as renewable. … This is a great policy, and the only thing that can challenge it is of course WTO. But as I said, it’s so nuanced draft that we expect WTO will say that it’s allowed in WTO. You are allowed to do specific policies for environmental reasons. We expect WTO will let that happen…  We came to the conclusion that the current palm oil isn’t sustainable … So what we’re saying is that palm oil can’t be used to comply as a renewable energy. Still palm oil can be imported, can be used for other purposes, but if you import it for renewable energy, it wouldn’t be counted.”

That Eickhout appears to be drawing on the Commission’s talking points on the RED isn’t a good sign. Eickhout is clearly a good Green politician and a reasonable scientist, but it doesn’t appear that he understands the issue – i.e. WTO rules – particularly well. What the WTO case is likely to argue is that the RED discriminates against palm oil, but not other feedstocks, e.g. soybean, when it comes to calculations of emissions.

These points were brought up in Argentina’s WTO submission on the first RED when it came to the default values for different biofuel feedstocks.

In addition, the methodology for calculating what he refers to as ‘sustainability’ is also at issue. Under WTO rules, these need to have some substance to them. Clearly, he hasn’t read the indirect land use change risk report – or perhaps he has.

We’ll have more on the EU’s own WTO advice in the coming days.


Fire update: Palembang under a cloud

The fire and haze crisis has largely died down in the media, though we suspect that this is influenced somewhat by international correspondents in Singapore not being able to see the haze or fires.

Case in point: Palembang in South Sumatra is currently recording some of its worst particulate and visibility readings for the year, harking back to the event in 2006 when much of southern Sumatra was under a pall of smoke.

Part of this is the wind and weather patterns. The fire counts in South Sumatra this year are about average when compared with previous haze events. They are well below the numbers recorded in major events in 2015 and 2006 for example, as well as lesser events in 2002 and 2009.

The fire counts within oil palm concessions for the past week – 4 per cent – are also strikingly low, with much higher counts – 28 per cent – in pulp plantation areas.

We often take issue with the lack of knowledge displayed by mainstream media when it comes to reporting on anything related to palm oil, but we were somewhat impressed by Al Jazeera’s coverage this week:

Haze from Indonesian fires, often set to clear land for planting, is an annual problem for Southeast Asia.

The fires are often started by smallholders and plantation owners to clear land for planting.

Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning because of the draining of swampy peatland forests for pulp wood and palm oil plantations.

The thing to note is that at no point does the story say that ‘fires and haze are caused by oil palm plantations’. It’s a subtle point, but perhaps there are grounds for optimism.