The jet trails are back.
The coronavirus pandemic is not yet a thing of the past, but does it matter? People (in Europe) are just excited at getting back their freedom. They are now eagerly planning their summer holidays and social and entertainment events, trying to make up for lost time.
Travel restrictions have been relaxed. Those living in EU countries who are fully vaccinated are given a ‘vaccination certificate’ as proof they have ‘protection’ against Covid-19. Along with a negative test result, they are then allowed to travel.
But there is a snag: aircraft burn vast amounts of jet fuel, which produces an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, and creates aerosols and black carbon. Polluted air has adverse effects on humans and other species, the planet’s temperatures and the climate.
Aircraft manufacturers and airline companies are promoting biofuels as the ‘clean fuel’ option for air transport. As biofuels produce less soot, they are thought to be less damaging.
Switching from conventional fossil fuels to so-called more “energy dense renewable fuels” (biofuels) is also enshrined in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive for its renewable energy policy.
The politics of biofuel-ing
‘Green’, ‘clean’, ‘low-carbon’ renewable transport fuel (ie biofuels) has a fascinating appeal and is widely believed to be the future ‘sustainable’ energy for aviation and other transport sectors.
The EU is incentivising biofuel as a renewable alternative to existing fossil fuel in airlines because it considers they can help lower the EU’s carbon footprint. Crucially, the European Commission has a tall climate ambition – to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
The Malaysian palm oil industry is trying to benefit from this EU renewable energy policy.
However, the EU’s policy on biofuels, specifically that palm oil-based fuels are to be phased out by 2030 in its new renewable energy directive, has sparked uproar in Malaysia and Indonesia. Both countries are the world’s largest palm oil producers and, unsurprisingly, have launched separate cases with the World Trade Organization, alleging the EU measures are discriminatory.
There are indeed certain contradictions between the EU and Malaysia. Among others, the EU is under pressure to focus on second generation biofuels, which is not in the interest of the palm oil industry.
Second generation biofuels are made from biomass (eg burning wood), agricultural residue or waste and feedstock like algae, halophytes, jatropha and camelina. First generation biofuels are derived from oil crops, sugarcane and maize.
First generation fuels are not seen as a viable fuel option for air transport because they are derived from food crops that are subjected to inherent fluctuations in pricing.
The EU has also taken strong positions on human rights violations and deforestation attributed to oil palm production. Oil palm plantations, often dominated by large firms, use large tracts of land and water resources – and often displace indigenous and rural farmers from their lands.
Much lobbying is going on, by the EU and also through industry-sponsored efforts to bring ‘greener fuel’ – not just any fuel but second generation biofuels – into the transport sector for mainstream use.
However, appropriate materials for second generation biofuels are not currently available in sufficient quantity to contribute significantly to climate friendly transport and so these biofuels are not quite ready for take-off.
As a result, the EU’s focus on second generation biofuels does not mean that palm oil-derived fuel does not get its market. Malaysia, for example, pursues other ‘willing’ buyers, including China, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South America.
Still, the Malaysian government has no wish to forego the EU, as seen in continuous trade missions to Europe, lobbying EU nations, hosting oil palm trade fairs in Europe, and most of all, bringing a dispute case against the EU to the WTO.
Even certain smallholders associations have reportedly now joined in the oily spat, asking the Malaysian government not to give in to EU pressure related to the ban on palm oil, even if it means using the ‘trade-arm deals’ package.
This reminded me that the politics-trade links, specifically arms procurement and military equipment, is a strategy often used to legitimise the dominant economic and political models.
Remember the scandal around the United Kingdom’s funding of the Pergau hydroelectric project in Kelantan in the early 1990s, linked to an arms deal? Under this deal, the Malaysian government agreed to buy over £1bn worth of British military equipment (Tim Lankester, The Politics and Economics of Britain’s Foreign Aid: The Pergau Dam Affair, 2013, Routledge).
And why did a high-level French delegation to Malaysia in January 2018 openly move France’s position away from the EU’s directive for a ban on palm oil biofuels towards one of cooperation instead?
Was it merely coincidental that, at a joint press conference, the French armed forces minister highlighted the common interests of Malaysia and France on “the threats to global order including terrorism, challenges to international law of the sea and cyber defence”? Was it also a coincidence that the minister on the Malaysian side said “both ministers agreed to strengthen military to military cooperation through bilateral exercises and regular interactions”?
Whose reality counts?
Many crucial issues around large-scale agribusiness plantations and forestry companies, as well as renewable energy sources – and in the Malaysian case, palm oil biofuels – remain.
- Indigenous and increasingly non-indigenous poor communities losing their land and their sources of livelihood to a few wealthy individuals, tree plantation and forestry companies, other agribusiness sectors and political elites
- Environmental devastation, including loss of biodiversity, endangered species and wildlife; erosion; extreme climatic events (eg landslides, flash floods, droughts)
- Incidences of violence against plantation workers (reported and unreported), especially against girls and women)
- Issues faced by undocumented migrant plantation workers (and documented) as well as struggling Malaysian plantation communities of adults and children, including rights for workers, decent living wages, safe and adequate housing, access to health and education, gender and social exploitation
As these issues expand, it is crucial to expose them and pressure the government and industrial sectors to take concrete action to resolve them, rather than hiding under the camouflage of a ‘green’ or ‘low carbon’ economy, in the hope this would be enough to tackle the climate crisis.
It is important to ask: are revenues from palm oil exports used for real development, especially of the deserving poor regions and communities in Malaysia? Or are they used for short-term political thinking and expediency and for defending the status quo?
From lived experience and examples in real life, the vested interests of a few elites and certain political groups in power, their supporters and big economic companies – both in the East and West – too often prevail over the people’s overall wellbeing.
Carol Yong is an independent writer and researcher