“Clean power” in Germany destroys jungle in Southeast Asia
15 Mar 2007 11:42 GMT
While jungle is destroyed on a vast scale in Southeast Asia for palm oil plantations, nearly all larger German heat and power co-generation stations have switched from locally produced rapeseed oil to imported palm oil because it’s cheaper. That's disastrous for the climate.
This has been researched by Bavarian television for its “report München” programme aired nationally.
That makes the climate-friendly co-generation plants, which produce both power and heating, climate killers.
Jungle is being burnt down in Indonesia and Malaysia to be replaced with oil palms.
Satellite images taken of Sarawak in 1990 still show green rainforest. Eleven years later there are bare areas and plantations. Smoke from the vast fires in Indonesia has been carried as far as Africa.
Professor Florian Siegert of Munich University makes a damning indictment. “We were able to prove that the making of these plantations and the burning of the rain forests and peat areas emits many thousands of times as much CO2 as we then are able to prevent by using palm oil. And that is a disastrous balance for the climate.”
Axel Friedrich at the German Environment Agency notes that co-generation plants as such are more environment-friendly than normal power stations because the heat normally wasted when power is generated is also used.
“But if I use palm oil in this application I destroy part of this advantage because I’m destroying jungle.”
report München accessed an unpublished study by the Leipzig based Institute for Energy and Environment stating that German co-generation plants will just this year produce at least 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours of power from palm oil.
That’s equivalent, for example, to the entire German solar power output in 2005.
What’s more, the operators of palm oil power stations receive subsidies. They will get some 200 million euros this year from a levy collected under the Renewable Energy Promotion Act, the legislation for German alternative energies. It will go onto power consumers’ bills.
A paradoxical law in this case: just like home-grown rape, oil palms are treated as re-growing plants from agricultural operations – even though these operations are in Southeast Asia.
The TV reporters confronted the German environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, with their findings.
He even sees the turnaround to more renewable energies jeopardised by the German palm oil problem.
“I find that very worrying because everyone using clean power promoted by the act thinks they’re doing something good, and if they’ve done that in part by destroying rain forest then we’re close to discrediting the sense of this renewables act in public awareness.”
The City Works Schwäbisch Hall burns 7,500 tonnes of palm oil a year in a five-megawatt co-generation plant.
The CEO, Johannes van Bergen, justifies it by arguing that rape oil had become too dear. Moreover, he says, he gets his oil only from old plantations in Malaysia. And his supplier was a member of the so-called “Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil”.
But that is as yet only a well-meaning working group without genuine controls. So could the power station chief check on the sustainability of the oil he burns? he was asked.
“I’m using a German law. As a small power works do I now have to do international research to rule out that a rain forest is cut down somewhere?
“Let me pass that back to you: why didn’t our government, when it was making this law, see to it that a corresponding certification of these oils was written into the law?”
Although there is no certification of sustainably produced palm oil yet, those trading in it already like citing it as justification.
The TV reporters found out that Urpower, the operator of a large co-generation plant in Saxony, buys palm oil on the world market.
Replying in writing to questions, the firm cited its membership of the round table and claimed it uses only vegetable oil “verified” by the World Wildlife Fund.
WWF told the reporters there’s “no palm oil on the market yet” meeting the round table criteria.
Axel Friedrich of the environment agency concurs that there is no system for certifying palm oil.
“Anyone who claims there is, is deliberately or unknowingly telling a lie. There is no system for the certification of palm oil. Moves are afoot to put such things in place but none exists.
“Anyone claiming he’s bought palm oil from an existing old plantation, takes palm oil out of the system, of course, and so increases the pressure to start new palm oil plantations at the expense of the jungle.”
A way out would be a certification system for provable sustainable palm oil plantations set up, for example, on already fallow land. But when will the overdue certification come?
“We want to have suggestions worked out by the middle of the year,” says the environment minister. “That can’t happen from one day to the next. It’s often wished that one could just throw a lever.
“But I’m telling you that you’re talking to countries that have a completely different take on this to ours. Not a good answer, but at least an honest one.”