For many years, biodiesel has been sold in Europe as an alternative to the polluting and disfavored traditional petrol. In the early years of the twenty-first-century, the EU threw its weight behind the fuel and has since obliged its members to promote and include it in industry. Spain has one of its most prominent producers. However, it has since lost its clean reputation. Everything has changed thanks to an old enemy that is key to its production: palm oil.
The very same vegetable oil that food companies now claim to have eliminated (‘palm oil free’ labels have become commonplace on cereal and sweet packets) is now found in your car rather than your food. Much of the blame can be directed at Spain. 92% of palm oil imported into Spain is used for biofuels and 72% of biodiesel produced and refined in the country comes from the vegetable oil, according to the National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC). Although these are huge figures on their own, they become even more serious when one considers that Spain is one of the largest European manufacturers of this biofuel along with the Netherlands and Italy. The use of palm oil-derived fuel will be banned by 2030 and it will start being phased out in 2023.
Despite the 2030 ban, environmental groups such as Ecologistas en Acción (Ecologists in Action) have decided to launch a campaign called #SiEsPalmaNoEsBio (If it’s palm oil it’s not bio) to push for stricter and more urgent measures to end the use of palm oil in biofuels. “Spain hasn’t really done anything since Europe began to rethink its palm oil-derived biofuel use. Time has passed without any change, importing and producing the same – and sometimes greater – levels of palm oil”, explained Rosalía Soley, coordinator of the Spanish ecologist campaign. “The only mention of this issue was in the National Plan for Energy and Climate Change and even then it was only in passing”.
According to her, palm oil is not a green solution: it emits three times the amount of greenhouse gases as diesel and is not at all sustainable. How can this be? “You need to take into account deforestation, transport, the process and the changing use of the land. When creating these monocultures, new land is always needed, and so the impact is huge”. This raises the other problem for Spain: the origin of the raw material.
“The main exporters of palm oil that we trade with to produce biodiesel are Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries whose rainforests are being burnt and destroyed in order to plant monocultures such as palm oil and similar vegetables with brutal repercussions for the environment on a global level”. The evidence is clear and supports Soley’s argument. Indonesia alone produces more than 51% of the palm oil that Spain