Is biofuel use leading to massive deforestation?

Campaigners say vast areas of forest are being cut down, but defenders insist not all fuels are equal

 You are likely already burning biofuel in your car. All unleaded petrol on sale in Ireland conforms to the EU’s current E5 regulation. File photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

You are likely already burning biofuel in your car. All unleaded petrol on sale in Ireland conforms to the EU’s current E5 regulation. File photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images


It’s 41,543sq km. That’s the land area of The Netherlands. It’s also the amount of forest lost around the world in 10 years of biofuel production. That is the claim being made by environmental think-tank, Transport & Environment (T&E) which is calling on the EU to end subsides and backing for biofuels.

You are likely already burning biofuel in your car. All unleaded petrol on sale in Ireland conforms to the EU’s current E5 regulation, which blends a five per cent mix of anhydrous ethanol – an alcohol-type fuel distilled from plants – into the fuel. Diesel mostly conforms to the B7 regulation for a seven per cent blend. The idea is that, because plants absorb carbon from the air around them as they grow, if you make ethanol from those plants, then the carbon emitted by burning it in an engine is in a closed-loop. You are simply returning carbon to the air, rather than extracting ancient carbon from the ground and burning that. E10 fuel – which allows for a 10 per cent ethanol mix – is now being rolled out.

It’s a nice idea (albeit one that ignores issues with emissions from producing and transporting the crops and the fuel itself – the EU does have systems in place that try to regulate those emissions too) but one which has its staunch critics. One of whom is Laura Buffet, energy director at T&E, who says: “Ten years of this ‘green’ fuels law and what have we got to show for it? Rampant deforestation, habitats wiped out and worse emissions than if we had used polluting diesel instead. A policy that was supposed to save the planet is actually trashing it. We cannot afford another decade of this failed policy. We need to break the biofuels monopoly in renewable transport and put electricity at the centre of the Renewable Energy Directive instead.”

The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) was introduced in 2010, setting a 10 per cent renewable energy target for transport by 2020 for each EU member state. This, claims T&E, has driven up demand for cheap crop-based biodiesel, such as palm and soy oil, which is mainly sourced from Asia and South America. It is likely that roughly four million hectares of forests have subsequently been razed, destroying an estimated 10 per cent of the world’s remaining orangutan habitats.

According to T&E, the 39 million tonnes of palm and soy oil-based biodiesel burned in trucks and cars across the EU in the past decade has actually emitted more CO2 than just burning regular, old-fashioned diesel. What T&E calls “virgin” oil foodstocks – those made from rapeseed, palm, soy) made up some 80 per cent of the EU’s biofuels supply in 2020. The use of locally-grown rapeseed and used cooking oil (UCO) fell, while demand for soy volumes grew 17 per cent and animal fats by 30 per cent compared with 2019.

“Nowadays consumers can choose whether they want to buy goods tainted with palm oil. This is not the case for transport. The EU’s transport sector is currently propping up demand for ruinous palm oil without consumers knowing it. We need to phase out palm oil biofuels immediately,” says Buffet. “While palm oil may be the worst, as history has shown, producers will simply move to what is cheap. In reality, unless we take action now palm will be replaced with soy or other virgin oils, moving the problem from one part of the world to another. Crop biofuels are not the solution for Europe’s transport and they never will be.”

Defending the use of biofuels, James Cogan, industry and policy adviser with Ethanol Europe, says that the problems highlighted by T&E are tarring all biofuels with one brush. “This is a story about bad regulation,” says Cogan. “The European Commission created schemes to incentivise renewable energy but failed to make rules to distinguish between safe effective renewable energy and palm oil biodiesel. This is about palm oil and soy biodiesel specifically. It’s not about all renewable energy or about all biofuels. This is a story about Europe offshoring its production to regions of the world where European standards are not upheld. The same kind of thing happens in agriculture and manufacturing. Increasing palm oil biodiesel is bad because more palm oil leads to more deforestation, in countries where conservation is not practised. European demand for palm oil for biodiesel contributes significantly to deforestation and habitat loss. Palm oil supplies are closely interconnected so there’s no such thing as ‘sustainable palm oil’ whether it’s for biodiesel or for biscuits. Every drop of palm oil is ‘mostly unsustainable’ and until palm oil deforestation is put under control the situation will remain like this. Biofuels should be sourced from Europe where standards are upheld and where there is traceability.”

Cogan says that no palm-based biofuels are used in Ireland, but that they do see heavy use in such nations as Italy, Germany, and France. He claims to have made “official freedom of information requests” to the EU to publish data on the countries of origin of all renewable energy in transport in Europe, but feels he has been stonewalled. The requests are now being examined by the European Ombudsman.

“Ireland should demand better regulatory standards from Brussels, ” says Cogan. “Palm oil is not the only bad apple in the barrel. Biodiesel made from used cooking oil is a great thing, so long as the used cooking oil is genuine. Much of it is not, due to weak regulation from Brussels. Ireland depends on used cooking oil for much of its renewable energy, so we should make sure the EU system for preventing fraud in renewable energy is fit for purpose, and right now it is not. In our company we make safe effective sustainable biofuel from EU farm crops. It is fully traceable back to the farm where the crops were grown, it is infinitely better for the climate and environment than regular fuel and there are no adverse impacts. It is a peace of mind renewable energy option for Europe and is actually the biggest source of renewables in transport today. We are immensely proud of our sector and we love to have policymakers and environmental groups visit our facilities and see for themselves how it all works.”