At the EU-ASEAN summit on 1 December 2020, a remarkable thing happened. The European Union agreed to a new conciliatory approach to palm oil, writes Robert Hii.
Since first banning palm oil for biodiesel in March 2019, this change in the EU’s own language has come in a matter of just 19 months – a short period of time given the EU’s bureaucratic inertia.
Of course, it will take some time before this new commitment filters down into formal concrete legislative and policy changes. However, this signals a new era in the EU’s relations with Southeast Asian palm oil producers.
The new commitment can be found in the joint statement released by summit co-chairs on behalf of both blocks. In elevating the ASEAN-EU dialogue to the coveted status of a “Strategic Partnership”, the statement specifically addressed the palm oil question as follows:
“In the spirit of mutual cooperation pertaining to sustainable vegetable oil production, we welcomed the launch of a joint working group between the EU and relevant ASEAN Member States to address the challenge towards reaching Sustainable Development Goals in the vegetable oil sector, especially the importance of a holistic approach to the environment…”
This passage indicates for the first time that the EU has moved towards recognising the reality not just of sustainable palm oil production but ensuring its support for the palm oil industry in sustainable development. Simultaneously, it implies that its policy on other vegetable oils including rapeseed, sunflower and soy can be reviewed and assessed with respect to objective sustainability standards.
ASEAN palm oil producers also welcomed the recognition of a “holistic approach to the environment”. Instead of a narrow focus on carbon emissions, this allows both sides to look at palm oil through a wider lens especially on its land footprint.
This shows that the EU is beginning to acknowledge the mistaken approach of measuring its environmental impact on other countries purely by reducing imports of one commodity while escalating consumption of commodities with greater land-use changes and higher carbon emissions.
Notably, the change of heart in the EU’s approach came a month after the release of a landmark report from The Schumacher Institute, a UK-based think-tank with close ties to the EU. The Institute has been funded by the European Commission with the report author, renowned British environmentalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed, being an advisor to a major EU-backed research programme on the low carbon transition.
The report criticised the EU’s contradictory approach on deforestation that the unimpeded import of beef and soy, responsible for a third of deforestation-linked carbon emissions, meant that the EU could increase its reliance on oilseeds with a greater land-use footprint and therefore, greater deforestation impact.
It called for a new approach: that a consistent sustainability standard should be applied across all such commodities rather than singling out palm oil.
The report urged greater EU support for sustainability standards proven to work. Highlighting record declines in deforestation in Malaysia as an outstanding example that should be empowered rather than boycotted, it recommended that the EU incentivise this progress further by opening the door to new trade relations.
EU policymakers appear to have taken these recommendations to heart.
The EU, as a critical driver for the sustainable production of palm oil, lost its influence in recent years as the Union’s hostility towards palm oil was felt.
The EU’s fresh approach holds great promise for tropical forests in palm oil producing countries where conservationists hope, the EU will regain its influence on producing palm oil sustainably and usher in a new era of cooperation where the EU and ASEAN countries can work together to build back better.
By Robert Hii