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Power from Palm Trees: green dream, or eco-nightmare?

Dave Harvey | 14:46 UK time, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Palm Trees in BorneoMark Incledon has a cunning plan, a green plan. "Our vegetable oil comes from plants, and the beauty of plants is that they extract CO2 from the air, and pump oxygen back in. It's a totally green process."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Take the oil from a plant, burn it in an engine to make electricity. The CO2 that comes out of your chimney is no more than the gas the plant absorbed when it grew.

Energy crisis solved. Global warming chilled.

Avonmouth skylineAnd that is pretty much the pitch that Bristol councillors will hear on February 24th. A group of entrepreneurs want to build a power station at Avonmouth. There's already a gas power plant there, a huge oil depot and six million tonnes of coal come through the port each year. No-one can claim this will spoil the view.

"We're going to make 400,000 mega watt hours of electricity," Mr Incledon goes on. "Enough to light up 25,000 houses."

The UK is running out of energy, especially electricity, and new sources are needed. This would be the country's first biofuel power station, and the company, W4B, plans others. Not only would they produce vital electricity, say W4B, they would do so with the carbon footprint of a mouse.

But the opposition is mammoth.

Here's why. The plant will need around 70,000 tonnes of vegetable oil a year. To feed it, at least at first, W4B accept they will need to enter the murky waters of the palm oil debate.

Logging in the Malaysian Rainforest"All the palm oil that's being grown at the moment, is being used," Jeremy Birch explains. He runs the Bristol Friends of the Earth, and is one of 900 people who have formally opposed this plant.

"So if they increase the demand for palm oil, the only way they can meet that is with new plantations. And that means chopping down rainforests."

Mr Birch and his friends reckon the biofuel plant will, of itself, result in rainforests being cutdown, orangutans being killed, indigenous people being displaced. Not surprisingly, W4B disagree.

It's a hugely complex row. There is extensive evidence that illegal logging in places like Borneo and Sumatra is connected to the palm oil trade. Certainly ground that has been cleared often ends up being planted with palms. But this is a row that pulls you one way, then the other. And W4B have a trump card.

"We will only use sustainable oil," Mr Incledon insists.

Just as you can buy organic coffee or Fairtrade chocolate, they will buy 'sustainable' oil from the official Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Mr Incledon clearly thinks this clinches his pitch. "Our oil hasn't been part of the deforestation process. It hasn't resulted in indigenous people being displaced."

The question is, how sustainable is this oil? The industry insists it is serious, and just recently Unilever, one of the largest buyers in the trade, cancelled a contract because of breaches of the sustainability codes. But in south Bristol, I meet a wildlife filmmaker who has seen, first hand, worrying evidence.

Land cleared in Indonesia for 'sustainable palm oil production'

Evie Wright has spent five years documenting the destruction of Indonesia's rainforests. Recently, she has started filming on plantations that claim to be sustainable. Her films make for worrying viewing.

"People have had their land taken off them. Plantations which ought to be producing palm oil sustainably are using fire to clear the land as a cheap option."

Evie's films have been shown to the RSPO, and her evidence is being examined at the highest level. She claims that because the plantations are hundreds of miles from the head offices in Jacarta and Kuala Lumpur, managers have little idea what actually happens on the ground.

It's a compelling case. If she's right, then sustainable palm oil is a myth, and Bristol's entrepreneurs are being sold a pup. But, once again, they have a riposte.

"We are relying on Ofgem," Mark Incledon tells me. The government's energy regulator polices renewable fuels, like palm oil, and awards a complex series of subsidies. W4B argue that if Ofgem say their oil is ok, that should be good enough for the campaigners. But there's more.

"In addition W4B is committed to independent monitoring of the fuel sources we use," Mr Incledon explains. "And if a better source comes along, we can use that. This plant will be green, 100% green."

See what I mean about complicated? I'd love to hear your take on it right here.
Planning councillors from north Bristol have ten days to get their heads around it. Already the leader of the council has waded into the row, writing to the Energy Secretary recently:

"The use of these fuel sources creates a market that is leading directly or indirectly to deforestation and loss of agricultural land. Without the (subsidies) that the government provides, there would be no market and the land in developing countries could be returned to food production or left to remain pristine."

I've been making a documentary about this, which you can see on Inside Out West, on Monday 15 Feb at 7:30pm on BBC One for the full story. Meantime, here's a preview:

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Despite serious concerns about the impacts of biofuels in general and vegetable oils like palm oil in particular on the climate, on forests and other ecosystems and on communities in the global South, as well as concerns over air pollution and public health in nearby areas biofuel (sometimes called Agrofuel) power station planning applications are springing up from a number of companies in several parts of the UK, including Bristol (more details on other parts of the UK from Food Not Fuel). More this issue here:

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Glenn, I check your blog often and its packed with detail. But what's the big picture: tell us why biofuel is worse than burning coal?

  • Comment number 4.

    Despite working in the construction industry and welcoming new infrastructure in the area I have to oppose the use of Palm oil. Palm oil has huge negative ramifications to the local environment in which it is farmed as well documented in the article.

    The Severn barrier is a much better alternative to these Palm oil plants and could supply the UK with something like one 5th of it's total energy needs with fewer serious environmental consequences.

    Surely pound for pound this makes more sense?

  • Comment number 5.


    I think it is a mixture...A beautiful green dream and, also, has a taint of a eco-nightmare because of its long-term problems with the ongoing involvement with how many trees will it take to do the power require...

    (Dennis Junior)

  • Comment number 6.

    Can anyone tell me why the question isn't: why aren't the palm trees being planted here in the UK in place of the old building structure? Why would we import the oil from Malaysia or whereever when the trees can grow in the UK climate (I have several that have grown happily in my garden for several years)? If we can process the oil here, certainly we can grow the trees to be processed here and avoid the issue of rain forest destruction altogether???

  • Comment number 7.

    Dave Harvey wrote '...I check your blog often and its packed with detail. But what's the big picture: tell us why biofuel is worse than burning coal?'

    Biofuels deprive people of an essential - land to grow food. I find it immoral to use land in poor countries to grow crops to extract oil to burn in power stations or in cars, primarily in rich countries. Thats why I support this Action Aid campaign against biofuels:

    Biofuels make climate change much worse - when full and proper carbon equivalent accounting is done burning vegetable oils emits up to 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than diesel oil - even if it is grown in the UK. A 2007 study by chemistry Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others suggested that the use of rapeseed biodiesel was associated with 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than the use of equivalent amounts of mineral diesel, due to nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizer use. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

    But there are many more reasons than this...Take a look here and also here

  • Comment number 8.

    '"We will only use sustainable oil," Mr Incledon insists.'

    As I understand teh arguments, there's still a finite amount being produced. If they buy x amount of a finite pot of sustainable palm oil, then x amount will come from somewhere else, most likely unsustainable.

    What difference does it make which x amount comes from unsustainable practices? Whether you're buying it directly or your impact on global supply causes someone else to buy it, the impact is the same.

    Is it not that simple?

  • Comment number 9.

    "I find it immoral to use land in poor countries to grow crops to extract oil to burn in power stations or in cars, primarily in rich countries."

    Yes, ^ that!

  • Comment number 10.

    So why is it happening? For one main reason-profits: The Government awards double renewable obligation certificates ( ROC’s ) for power stations burning vegetable oil. In other words, you harvest twice as much taxpayers' money this way as you would for generating the same amount of electricity with a wind turbine. None of it would be happening if it weren't for this incentive,
    The European Commission is planning to increase the amount of palm oil used in cars and power stations under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED)
    The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO)certifying Palm Oil is no guarantee that rainforests will not get chopped down, as all that happens is non-certified palm oil is displaced into tropical peatland rainforest. This process is called indirect land-use change. The change in land use (rainforest getting destroyed) may not be caused directly by the biofuel plantation, but indirectly as the biofuel plantation forces the agricultural frontier to expand. So RSPO offers little in respect of reducing carbon emisions. .
    The RSPO can offer some improvements on social standards of palm oil production and have worked on the development of its social standards - for example, standards require that land rights and human rights are respected. RSPO cannot claim that it guarantees favourable Greenhouse Gas balance and should not be used to claim that biofuels are climate positive - it does not offer that assurance.
    Anything that increases aggregate demand for palm oil (or more generally vegetable oils) is a problem

  • Comment number 11.

    How much palm oil is this plant going to consume? The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Certified sustainable palm oil has only been available since November 2008, with annual capacity now somewhere between 1.75m and 2m tonnes, which is only around 10% of global palm oil production. But annual sales of certified oil, while on the increase, are still estimated to be no higher than 250,000 tonnes. As for jatropha A "miracle" plant, once thought to be as the answer to producing renewable biofuels on a vast scale,a damning report concludes that it is driving thousands of farmers in the developing world into food poverty, see

  • Comment number 12.

    Have a look at the Palm oil feature in the films & material covering the environmental issues surrounding palm oil including biofuels, forest conversion, habitat loss and endangered species. Vast swathes of tropical rainforest are being cleared to grow palm oil, especially in Kalimantan, where it is estimated that an area the size of three football pitches is cleared every minute. Forest conversion for palm oil almost always impacts negatively on local people who are often reliant on natural forest for their livelihood. Whilst an estimated 2% of the Indonesian population make their living from the palm oil industry, almost 44% are reliant on natural forest resources. In Kalimantan, jobs on the plantations often go to migrant labourers from elsewhere in Indonesia, leaving a disenfranchised and dispossessed local population

  • Comment number 13.

    It may be a soloution for us humans to use this new type of palm oil, however, what is going to happen to all the forests that are cut down to make way for the palms to grow alng with all the Flora and Fauna that live in these forests. Becase once they are all gone there is not a way for us to look and see if we can find replacemens for them surely we should belooking else where for reatainable energy sources or finding a way to use less!

  • Comment number 14.

    More on the use of Palm Oil Watch "DYING FOR A BISCUIT" Monday 22nd Feb 20:30hours on BBC 1 repeated midnight 25 hours.
    In the UK we consume huge amounts of palm oil, an ingredient found in scores of products including biscuits, fish fingers, cosmetics and toiletries.In Panorama's Dying For a Biscuit, reporter Raphael Rowe journeys into the rainforest of Borneo, where he uncovers evidence of palm oil companies cutting down trees illegally and developing plantations on protected land.


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