Biofuels are a new generation of fuels that derive their energy from the carbon fixed in vegetation and algae. Palm oil biodiesel offers an alternative source of energy that can reduce current dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels and, depending on the feedstock and processing used, may reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A large number of vehicles can be adapted to use biofuels, and greater uptake of biofuels for transportation could significantly reduce emissions from cars and trucks and thereby mitigate global climate change. The practice of using palm oil for biodiesel is common among oil palm smallholders, who regularly produce biodiesel to fuel transportation in their local area.

However, cultivation of oil palm for biofuel is controversial because it occurs in some of the world’s most biodiverse areas (see map below). If peatland and forest are cleared  to grow oil palm, not only can biodiversity in the area be impacted but a large amount of carbon stored in the forest vegetation and peat soil is released back into the atmosphere, negating the benefits of the reduced GHG emissions from burning the biofuel.

A recent study by the European commission found that, when indirect effects are considered, greenhouse gas emissions from biodiesel are more than three times higher than those from conventional diesel engines. This can mainly be attributed to the tropical deforestation that occurs to grow crops such as oil palm, which can be used to produce first generation biofuels. A significant amount of palm oil is used for biodiesel production in Europe, which has a target to source 10% of its transport fuel from renewable energy by 2020. Recent figures suggest up to 45% of palm oil used in Europe in 2014 contributed to biodiesel production, an 8% rise since 2010. The study by the EC estimates this policy will foster crop cultivation on 6.7 million hectares of forests and grasslands. The European Parliament recently voted to put a cap of 7% on the contribution that first generation biofuels can make to this, which will come into effect by 2017, and will save more than 500m tonnes of CO2 per year.

World map showing biodiversity hotspots and areas of biofuel crop cultivation by UNEP/GRID-Arendal

World map showing biodiversity hotspots and areas of biofuel crop cultivation by UNEP/GRID-Arendal

While many promote biodiesel as a way to create a more secure source of energy across the world, others voice concerns over negative implications for food security. A primary concern voiced is that of agricultural land once used to grow food crops instead being used for the biofuels sector and food crops being used as a source of biofuel rather than as food.

Academics, scientists, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have already played a large role in focusing attention on environmental and social issues related to biofuels to ensure that biofuel suppliers and policy makers make reforms and move towards more sustainable production and practices. Increasing demands for transparency from a wide range of stakeholders have led to supply chain investigations and lifecycle analyses of all energy sources, identifying issues such as the large GHG emissions associated with biofuel production in the tropics. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) is the global standard and certification scheme for the sustainable production of biomaterials and biofuels.

This section of the website includes government reports contextualising the role of biofuels, tools for monitoring GHG emissions related to biofuels, investigative reports on palm oil production for fuels, transportation policies, scientific articles on biofuel production, and NGO reports on the impacts of using palm oil as a biofuel. 

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