Europe: A High-Level Peat CO2 Emitter

The European oilseed industry, through the voice of a small group of rapeseed biofuel associations and companies from Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria, has once again attacked Palm Oil’s place in European biofuels policy.

Their new line of attack is that Palm Oil’s relationship with peat soils means that it should be left out of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). A similar line is being pursued by MEPs from the same countries as they continue to negotiate with the Commission and the Council ahead of the next Trilogue on June 13.

At the core of their claims is that “palm oil is the only biofuel feedstock whose expansion is synonymous with soil oxidation.”

This is simply untrue – just ask Germany. German maize has been planted on peatland across Germany as a feedstock for biogas.   Maize is also a key ingredient in animal husbandry which itself accounts for some of the largest agricultural emissions in Europe.

There are plenty of myths around Palm Oil and peat in the EU that should be debunked. This is the latest example of a long history of hypocrisy out of Europe against South East Asian Palm Oil.

MYTH: Peat CO2 emissions only take place in tropical Southeast Asia.

FACT: Russia has the largest peat stocks in the world, followed by Canada and Indonesia. Countries in Europe such as Finland, Sweden and Norway have larger peat stocks than Malaysia, as do many other countries around the world, including the US, China, Sudan, Brazil and Peru.

According to some studies the European Union has relatively high levels of emissions from degraded peat. The most comprehensive study considers the European Union to be the second-highest source of peatland degradation emissions. The study confirms the “EU as a source of carbon dioxide emissions from peatlands drainage that it is largely due to agriculture and forestry”. This is higher, for example, than Malaysia. The largest emissions come from Finland (50 million tons), Germany (32 million tons) and Poland (24 million tons).  In combination these are significantly larger than Malaysia’s (48 million tons), according to the study.

MYTH: Peat CO2 emissions only happen when peat is drained.

FACT: Peat degradation emissions take place when peatlands are used for agriculture. This is widespread around the world – including in the European Union.

In Germany around “7.3 per cent of agricultural land is peatland – but this is responsible for more than 30 per cent of agriculture emissions in Germany”. EU-wide, it is estimated that peat is responsible for 90 per cent of the EU’s agricultural soil-based emissions.

It is also the case that peatlands are being used in Germany to grow maize, which is then used as a feedstock for biogas.

MYTH: Peat CO2 emissions only happen on the ground.

FACT: Peat is used in many European countries as a fuel source. It is cut from the ground (producing greenhouse emissions) and then burned as a source of either heat energy or for electricity generation. The largest producers of peat (for fuel) are Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Germany – all EU countries. The emissions profile of peat is slightly higher than that of coal. In Finland, around 6 per cent of all electricity produced comes from peat burning. In Ireland this figure is closer to 11 per cent.

MYTH: Oil palm cultivation on peatlands in Malaysia is extensive.

FACT: False. The most recent public studies of oil palm planting on peatland in Malaysia took place in 2010. According to the RSPO, 14 per cent of all oil palm in Malaysia was established on peatlands. A satellite study undertaken by the NUS in Singapore put it closer 11 per cent.  Total forest area on peat soil (including peat swamp forests and regrowth i.e. regenerated forests) was more than three times that of palm plantations according to this study.

MYTH: Peatland emissions in tropical countries take place only for oil palm cultivation.

FACT: According to the NUS study, in Malaysia, the area of peat soils considered as ‘Mosaic’ – a combination of agroforest, small-scale agriculture, degraded land – is larger than the peatland used for Oil Palm plantations.

MYTH: Emissions from tropical peat are well understood.

FACT: There are significant gaps in knowledge when it comes to tropical peat. The most recent estimates consider peat emissions from Indonesia to be significantly lower than previously thought – less than half and in some cases less than one-third of previous estimates.  In other words, there are significant gaps in knowledge that need to be taken into account for any revisions under the RED – particularly if they’re going to take peat into account.

When the European Commission first started examining the peat question for RED I in the 2000s, gaps in knowledge around European peat were large; they simply assumed that it was a problem that only existed outside of the EU. Now European regulators are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem in Europe. In 2016, the German government started publishing commissioned work on the contribution of peatland to Germany’s emissions. They are talking about pursuing accounting options under the UNFCCC and even incorporating peat emissions into the EU ETS framework.

Before European groups – and MEPs – start beating the peat bandwagon drums, they will need to look at what is happening in their own backyards.

The simple conclusion is this: It is simply false for anyone in Europe whether they be an MEP or a lobby group to attempt to justify a ban on Palm Oil biofuels based on arguments of “peat exploitation” or “soil oxidation”. These are practised in Europe, and elsewhere, extensively. The ‘peat’ argument has no intellectual or scientific merit. Those in favour of the Palm Oil ban are clearly getting desperate.