All the while, Baumann does not by any means deny that deforestation is generally taking place in Indonesia. But apparently not for European biodiesel. His view is supported by the economic and energy policy spokesman of the CDU parliamentary group, Joachim Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer noted in an interview with Panorama that he considered it "absolutely acceptable" to add palm oil to diesel if that palm oil is produced sustainably.
Indonesia supplies more than 90 percent of the palm oil used in Europe as climate-friendly biodiesel. What does the situation look like in the areas where the oil palms are grown? Doing independent research in Indonesia is practically impossible for Europeans. But we have been in contact for several years with investigative journalists on the ground, who have kept track of developments in Sumatra and Borneo for us.
Deforestation is continuing "sustainably"
A recent visit to Central Kalimantan, at the heart of Borneo, revealed that deforestation continues apace. Excavators are still pulling up trees. Oil palms are proliferating all around the remains of the rainforest. The oil produced here is certified as "sustainable". Signs indicate the certification. Ten years ago, when we toured this same region with our Indonesian colleagues, the rainforest here was bigger.
In the German government, the Ministry of the Environment, led by the SPD Party, is responsible for the issue of palm oil. In a statement, the ministry spokesman initially agreed with the criticism expressed in Panorama and likewise questioned the validity of sustainability certificates for palm oil:
"We are keeping a close watch over the use of palm oil in fuels," the spokesman told us, adding: "Biofuels from cultivated biomass – including palm oil – cause a great deal of CO2 emissions. The raw material is produced specifically for use in the fuel and may be imported from far away. Even biofuels certified as sustainable can have damaging effects on the environment and the climate. (...) The result is the deforestation of tropical rainforests or the drainage of wetlands – both of which are associated with high greenhouse gas emissions. This is often the consequence of palm oil plantations, for example."
Clear words. And yet the German government refuses to deny palm oil the status of a climate-friendly fuel. Until 2030, mineral oil dealers can carry on adding certified palm oil to diesel and have the alleged greenhouse gas savings credited to their accounts. This is permitted by the new EU "Renewable Energies" directive.
France no longer considers palm oil to be climate-friendly
France has responded quite differently to the devastating findings from palm oil cultivation in South East Asia. As of 1 January 2020, France no longer considers palm oil to be climate-friendly. "At some point you just have to say 'Stop!' says Bruno Millienne, member of parliament for the liberal-conservative party "Mouvement democrate". He proposed a corresponding amendment to the Assemblee Nationale.
"We now know that the cultivation of oil palms leads to deforestation. As a result, incredibly large amounts of CO2 escape into the air, heating up the atmosphere. We are at a point where we as parliamentarians need to be coherent and act according to the realities," Millienne explained in the Panorama interview. "These environmental issues have to take priority over petty day-to-day politics. This has to do with humanism. Do we want what is good for the planet or not? The question must be addressed across party lines," added the 60-year-old liberal-conservative delegate, who has several grandchildren. The German conservatives apparently do not want to deal with it.
When we asked CDU Party member Joachim Pfeiffer why Germany is not following France's example in its palm oil policy, he stood up abruptly and broke off the interview. Germany has reconciled itself to the biodiesel lie. The spokesman for the Ministry of the Environment said that the country would be promoting other raw materials such as plant waste more strongly.
He expressed the hope that this would reduce the ratio of palm oil in diesel. Biofuel lobbyist Elmar Baumann adopts a conciliatory tone, saying that the use of palm oil in diesel should not be expanded any further. The amount is to be "capped“, he says. In other words, the use of "certified" palm oil in German diesel engines will continue in the coming years, as if there could be a right life amidst wrongs.
Inge Altemeier & Stefan Buchen
© ARD/Panorama 2020
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor