The Challenges to Europe’s Climate Commitments and Renewable Energy

The Great Reset as expounded by the World Economic Forum wants to point out a pathway towards a planet that is sustainable for all life on earth. Its bold concepts for a sustainable planet under The Davos Agenda has the support of global corporations as well as governments which is welcome news for palm oil producing countries.

For too long, tropical countries have been shunted around as mere carbon sinks for global emissions with little recognition that these forest rich countries need development as well.

The European Union which is most guilty of pushing this biased view on sustainability has created the European Green Deal which has committed to the protection of 30% of its land and seas.

However, these ambitions towards a sustainable economy face multiple challenges especially in European agriculture, fertilisers and forestry. Should the EU succeed in resolving the problem of sustainability within its member states, the lessons learned will hopefully provide the EU with a better understanding of how it should approach other nations in the global push for a sustainable planet.

The thing about the EU is that it is made up of an interesting mosaic of rich industrialized countries like Germany and poorer countries like Poland where the last remaining forests in the EU are found.

Deforestation in Poland and the threaten of biodiversity collapse across Europe have caused conflict between Poland and Brussels. The threat of a “Polexit” as Poland grapples with what it sees as a Euro threat to its sovereignty should ring familiarly for palm oil producing countries which have long decried the EU position on palm oil.

But the bigger problem for the EU is the clear fact that its pledges on reducing emissions and protecting more of its land for conservation will be impossible to achieve.

Not Enough Land to Meet EU pledge to Protect more Lands

There simply isn’t enough land in the EU to meet its pledge. France for example, as one of the most vocal opponents of subsidies for palm oil biofuels uses creative accounting to claim that it has “managed to place 20% of its land habitats and 16% of its marine habitats under protected status.”

The glossy report by France Diplomacy also states that Mainland France has among the greatest diversity of amphibians, birds and mammals in Europe but buried among the many words is the fact that only 1.35% of France in Europe is protected as of 2015.

Meanwhile, a newer report from 2018 sounded the alarm on the catastrophic decline of bird populations in France which “ultimately imperils all humans.”

Yet another threat to all humans from French agriculture is its use of nitrogen fertilizers. This seldom recognized source of  environmentally harmful gas emissions had been reported as early as 2012. An updated report on nitrous oxides suggests that nitrous oxide which is 300 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide is steadily increasing in the atmosphere.

Yet France is refusing to take action to stop this cause of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Its weak attempt to phase out neonics to protect biodiversity has been put on hold in favor of its agricultural sector. This despite the report from the French National Centre for Scientific Research that “neonicotinoid pesticides kill a lot more than just bees, posing a deadly risk to frogs, common birds, fish and earthworms.”

For comparisons sake, palm oil uses four times less fertilizers than rapeseed but to appease its farmers, France has banned the use of palm oil as a feedstock for renewable energy.

Despite the emissions from its agriculture and the alarming news of biodiversity collapse, French grown rapeseed still qualifies as feedstock as “renewable energy” for the EU.

Not Enough Solutions to Meet Pledges for Emissions Reductions

To further compound the EU’s pledge to reduce emissions, its go-to source for renewable energy in biomass is now being challenged.

According to the European Commission:

“Biomass for energy (bioenergy) continues to be the main source of renewable energy in the EU, with a share of almost 60%.”

Objections to the EU’s consumption of biomass for renewable energy had been protested by US environmental groups which exposed the loss of forests in the US to feed the EU. As pressured mounted on the EU to stop importing biomass, the EU looked towards European sources of biomass to justify its “renewable” status.

This was promptly criticized by environmental groups who warned of the devastating consequences to European forests should the EU continue to see biomass as a renewable energy.

To press home their point, NGOs filed a lawsuit against the EU for its use of biomass. “The plaintiffs—individuals and non-governmental organizations from Estonia, France, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, and the U.S.—allege the practice is harming their health and livelihoods. They point to research that shows wood-burning power plants are worse for the climate than coal-fired plants and result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and degradation of forest carbon sinks, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Faced with mounting evidence that its reliance on biomass to reduce its emissions was problematic, the EU Commission issued its own findings that “Most forest biomass worse for climate than fossil fuels.”

To drive the point home on biomass, 500 scientists have written to five world leaders including the President of the European Council, the president of the European Commission, the US president, the prime minister of Japan and the president of South Korea) to ask them to intervene to end the practice of burning wood for energy at industrial scale – for which their countries and regions are very largely responsible.

The news gets worse for renewable energy in Europe. Amnesty International which published a report in 2019 to challenge industry leaders to clean up their batteries published a new report in 2021 urging businesses and governments to ensure “that lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and many electronic devices, and which are essential for tackling climate change, are not linked to human rights abuses or environmental harm.”

These recent developments maybe unpalatable to the European Parliament but these are the facts that have to be brought to the table at the ongoing EU-ASEAN discussions on palm oil.

The anti palm oil sentiment of the French government must be questioned against France’s failure to meet its commitments to the Paris Climate Accord.

The development of the palm oil industries in the past few decades may not have been perfect in meeting the sustainability requirements as we know them today. Protectionist stances that favor one farmer against another will not alleviate the climate problem at hand. Farmers, whether French rapeseed farmers or Southeast Asian palm oil farmers are vital solutions towards mitigating climate change and must be acknowledged as such.