Palm Oil – The dirty truth

This page contains a briefing on Palm Oil produced by ACSEB (Action for Sustainable Energy for Bristol) and, below, links to website articles showing the extent of human rights abuses and devastation of the forests that results from the production of palm oil.

Why we must stop using bioliquid fuels for electricity NOW

  1. Scientists have shown that burning palm oil, the most widely used biofuel for electricity generation, causes more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) than fossil fuels. Unfortunately much international legislation including the Kyoto Protocol and European Renewable Energy Directive (RED) contains serious carbon accounting errors that hide this fact.
  2. Bioliquid fuels are causing a massive new demand for palm oil and other oil crops, this can only be filled with new plantations carved from tropical forest. Whether palm-oil is produced from ‘certified’ plantations or not, exporting palm-oil to be burnt in power-stations etc. is a new demand when existing production is already fully subscribed-for. This supply can only be harvested from new plantations. This is not a ‘sustainable’ practise.
  3. Plants are very inefficient converters of the energy of the sun. As a source of renewable energy DECC’s own scientific advisor David MacKay has said that biofuels “are scarcely worth talking about” and a former Government Chief Scientific Advisor has said that cutting down rainforest to produce biofuel crops is “profoundly stupid”.
  4. Palm oil producers are inflicting major human rights abuses in southeast Asia, Central and South America and West Africa: including forced eviction of populations, rape and murder. The RED takes no account of these illegal actions by this evil industry.
  5. Diverting land from food to energy crops e.g. for Jatropha plantations, maize for ethanol, etc. has already caused food prices to rise and the poor to starve.
  6. No credible, valid certification system for so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil exists. It is both impossible scientifically and impractical to deliver because of the bulk shipping methods used for the product. Paper certification is already corrupt.
  7. OFGEM is not required to to verify the validity of sustainability certificates produced by consultants – these are voluntary. OFGEM certification for subsidies will be annual and retrospective – after the damage is done, and thus much harder to stop. Lack of any ‘policing’ by OFGEM will thus allow abuse to increase.
  8. W4B’s proposals for Avonmouth and Portland will together double UK imports of palm-oil. There is no opportunity at either site for CHP (Combined Heat and Power), thus the plants will be very inefficient in energy conversion. W4B have repeatedly changed their submissions about the fuel to be used. In their planning applications they state that it is to be palm oil and jatropha oil. Palm oil is the cheapest bio-liquid feedstock and is used by the comparable generators in Italy. It is thus the likely fuel-stock. Jatropha is not yet commercially available. No company has yet admitted using virgin palm oil in UK biofuels.
  9. DECC has commendably endeavoured to establish full life cycle carbon accounting for biofuels. The NNFCC report 10-016 gives biofuels a very feeble endorsement.  It says, “It is not impossible for some installations to generate good greenhouse gas savings, even with tropical feedstocks.”  Unfortunately the report takes no account of either direct or indirect land use change (LUC & ILUC) the most important long-term contributor to GHGes. NNFCC 11-016 states that where other renewable technologies are not viable the technology can be effective. “These installations are likely to include small-medium scale CHP (perhaps up to 20MWe) and some heat-only application.”  These are not the kind of industrial scale generation plants proposed by W4B. Nor does the report use the latest scientific results on oil-palm plantation emissions. Nor does it use ‘corrected’ carbon calculations.
  10. Under the RED the “default” levels for GHG savings (35% for palm oil – rising to 50% from 1.1.2017) can only be used if the emissions from LUC are less than or equal to zero.  This is impossible scientifically. The European Commission has also announced that it proposes: “To increase the minimum greenhouse-gas saving threshold for new installations to 60% in order to improve the efficiency of biofuel production processes as well as discouraging further investments in installations with low greenhouse gas performance.”
  11. DECC state that most bioliquids currently used derive from wastes and residues. These quantities are very small. The DECC 4% cap on quantities of palm oil eligible for ROC (Renewables Obligation Certificates) subsidies will create a 500,000 tonnes demand and the Dutch, German and Italian experience shows that palm-oil will be the preferred fuel in industrial quantities, because it is the cheapest.
  12. Britain is exceptionally fortunate in its potential for wind and tidal -truly renewable energy. Bristol has the second largest tidal range in the world – ideal for tidal lagoon and tidal stream generation. Portland is suitable for both tide and wind generation. These should be subsidised, not biofuels which are a scam.


Biofuels cause worse climate damage than fossil fuels. Given all the errors in current legislation, the prevalence of corrupt practice in certification, and the new demand driven by fuel substitution, the only sensible option is to apply the precautionary principle and stop using bioliquids NOW. Voters’ money (ROCs come from their electricity bills) should be used to promote energy saving and renewable energy industries that deliver a guaranteed saving of GHGes.

DECC should be contesting the emissions savings in the Appendix of the RED, these were supplied by the petroleum and car industries. DECC should also be correcting the carbon accounting faults found by Timothy Searchinger et al (Science 23 October 2009: Vol. 326 no. 5952 pp. 527-528 DOI: 10.1126/science.1178797) and investigating alternative carbon-accounting systems to be adopted by the EU such as annual basis carbon (ABC) as proposed by De Cicco.

Mike Andrews.   21 March 2014

ACSEB’s original paper including supporting evidence is available here: Word doc (downloads) | PDF file (opens in new window).

Palm Oil – Further Reading

All links open in a new browser window or tab.

  • Indonesia: terror and eviction for palm oil – Rainforest Rescue
  • Major palm oil company accused of links to killings, kidnapping and the forced eviction of small farmers – the Guardian website
  • Forced, child and trafficked labour in the Palm Oil Industry – pdf factsheet (3MB)
  • Indonesian Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human Rights Abuses – website
  • Forest fires in the Sumatrun Rainforests – Greenpeace website
  • Deforestation of Kalimantan rainforest – in pictures (the Guardian)
  • Orangutans fight for survival as thirst for palm oil devastates rainforests – the Guardian website

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