Europe has toughened its policies towards palm oil with the aim to restrict imports. The main reason seems to be the rising concerns over the future of rainforests in Indonesia and vast deforestation.

Despite efforts to help Indonesia put an end to devastating policy that has global impact, the threat remains. What is more, a new threat to the rainforest that could aggravate climate change conditions represent the ‘green’ turn of the aviation industry towards biofuels. A movement that might seem positive could ultimately encourage further deforestation for palm and soya plantations for biofuels.

European Interest discussed this issue with Øyvind Eggen, head of Norway’s Rainforest Foundation (RFN), an independent NGO not linked to the Norwegian government, and a long-time activist. Mr. Eggen addressed a wide range of topics, from Indonesia’s behaviour concerning deforestation to the role of climate denialists and what the EU and EFTA countries should do to raise awareness about environmental issues.

European Interest: More than a decade ago, Norway signed a $1bn agreement with Indonesia for the protection of tropical forests. The aim is to stop the burning of rainforests to convert them into palm oil plantations. However, the first payment was delayed for nearly seven years since Indonesia did not adjust according to the rules. Did the agreement have a positive effect? Is Indonesia keen to respect international agreements?

Øyvind Eggen: Although Indonesia has not qualified for payment-for-results until recently, several measures to reduce Indonesia were initiated since the signing of the agreement, many of them supported by Norway. The Indonesia-Norway agreement also contributed to increased attention to the value of protecting rainforests among key groups in Indonesia. Both the specific measures and the increased attention are most likely among the reasons we have seen significant decrease in deforestation in Indonesia recently. In other words, the agreement started to ‘work’ upon signing and the subsequent measures taken, even though it took almost a decade before significant reduction in deforestation was seen. Whether Indonesia is keen to respect international agreements? That is for Indonesia to demonstrate, but it is important that Indonesia does not do this for an international audience; there is a lot of interest in saving the rainforest in Indonesia, co-existing with other interests that threatens the forest. In that dynamics, the international community can provide some support – and nudge – in the right direction, but it all boils down to national political will.

there is a lot of interest in saving the rainforest in Indonesia, co-existing with other interests that threatens the forest

A new market has opened for the Indonesian palm oil industry. It is China. Do you think Indonesia will seek China’s backing to avoid EU pressure, and unfold an extensive deforestation programme?

I would not call it ‘EU pressure’. We are primarily talking about precautions to reduce the risk that European import contributes to deforestation, which is the legitimate interest of European consumers, companies and governments. China is a potentially new market, but we also see that Indonesia has started developing a new domestic market for palm oil, as biofuel. An increasing blending mandate has resulted in increasing domestic palm oil consumption, and this seems to be a response to concerns for a declining market in the EU. In any case, new markets and increased domestic consumption does not really change the rationale behind actions in the EU. While there will always be a market for palm oil, the main threat against the rainforest is the rapidly increasing overall demand for palm oil, especially for biofuels, leading to a corresponding expansion of the palm oil industry into new areas. Any action taken – in EU and elsewhere – to reduce the global demand will reduce the threat against rainforest correspondingly.

According to a report released by Rainforest Foundation Norway, the aviation industry could emerge as a major supporter of palm oil and soya farming since it will plan to increase the use of biofuels based on these particular crops. Is there any alternative for the aviation industry if it wants to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions?

Yes, there are indeed alternatives. There are options available already, such as biofuels made of waste and residue. Our report also recommends the aviation industry to look into alternative fuels, like electrofuels, which can probably be industrialised to scale relatively easily. For shorter flights, electric planes may become the preferred option within a decade. The alternatives are already there, given some time for development and willingness to pay the extra costs.

Climate change denialism (supported by many conservative and far-right political parties) appears to be attracting followers across Europe. Can such an attitude affect the environmental policies of Europe? 

While we see climate change denialism across Europe, we also see unprecedented calls for climate action in many European countries that will be difficult to ignore. Climate deniers are often dominated by older people, while the call for action comes mostly from younger generations. Guess who will win in the long term.

Our report also recommends the aviation industry to look into alternative fuels, like electrofuels, which can probably be industrialised to scale relatively easily

The EU and EFTA countries are considered the most advanced as regards climate sensibilisation. However, they are encircled by a world that not only despises climate change alarm but opposes climate policies. In such a political environment, how much space for action remains to the EU and EFTA? How many possibilities do they have to implement climate policies and reduce human-made devastations against nature?

Your question seems to reflect an idea that something like international consensus is needed to get things going when it comes to climate action. This has indeed been the key ambition in international climate negotiations, and while it would of course be preferable, consensus is not necessary. There are plenty of examples of individual countries and regions, like EU and EFTA, which have taken unilateral actions that both make a difference by themselves, and also pave the way for others. We see it in the EU’s work on biofuel, in Norway’s efforts to save rainforest, and in individual countries taking the lead to promote and develop specific technological solutions to a point where they become commercially attractive without policy support. So there are plenty of options for EU even if other regions and countries do not want to move as fast.