How your fuel bills are subsidising deforestation


The habitat of the endangered Orangutan continues to shrink as palm oil monoculture spreads.

One government department raises awareness about endangered species whilst another uses our fuel bills to contribute to their demise. Helen Buckland, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, explains...

On Monday DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) launched  ”If They’re Gone.......”, a new year-long campaign to raise awareness about the threats facing four iconic endangered species – orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos.

Yet today (6th March), MPs will debate DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change) proposals which could see our fuel bills being used to subsidise the burning of palm oil in power stations to generate electricity – a move which would lead to the destruction of these species’ habitats. 

The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, has referred to the conversion of rainforests to bio-fuel plantations as “profoundly stupid”, and the DECC’s own Chief Scientific Advisor, David MacKay, has said that bio-fuels “are scarcely worth talking about”.

Their statements are backed up by mounting scientific evidence that bio-fuels are simply not the solution to our energy needs or carbon reduction goals. In many cases, burning bio-liquids for energy is significantly worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

So why is the DECC trying to push through subsidies for up to half a million tonnes of bio-liquids to be burnt in our power stations every year?

Campaigners have pointed out that this policy would lead to an increase in demand for palm oil, by far the cheapest bio-liquid on the market - and linked to severe environmental degradation. In response, DECC has justified its plans by relying on sustainability criteria, and a cap on the annual tonnage of bio-liquids that can qualify for subsidies. 

Unfortunately, the cap is so high that it could lead to a doubling of the UK’s annual palm oil imports relative to current levels; (palm oil is a common ingredient in food and cosmetics). Also, the sustainability criteria completely fail to take into account the well-documented adverse impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity, communities, food security and the climate that arise from diverting agricultural land from food to fuel production.  .

In Sumatra there is now more than four times as much land under oil palm monoculture as there is remaining habitat for the orangutan, a species which shares its forest home with Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos.  As the DEFRA ”If They’re Gone…” campaign will highlight, all are critically endangered and in enough trouble without becoming collateral damage from one of the UK’s misguided renewable energy policies. 

The expansion of plantations is also linked to other causes of biodiversity decline including hunting, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, illegal logging, and forest fires.  Furthermore, the palm oil industry is associated with poor working conditions, child labour, health and safety risks, and even fatal land conflicts in producer countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Ecuador and Honduras; land-grabs are now being reported in Liberia and Cameroon.

If DECC’s proposals are approved today, the subsidies, called ROCs (Renewables Obligation Certificates) will be guaranteed for 20 years.

Thus the Government is making a one-year commitment to raise awareness about endangered species, whilst simultaneously making a twenty-year commitment to risking their habitats by increasing demand for palm oil. 

Long-term support for renewable energies should be welcome news – it’s the country’s “greenest government ever” finally getting around to some planet-loving policies.  In fact, a recent DECC poll showed that 79% of the UK public supports renewable energy.  Although it seems obvious, shouldn’t policies supporting investment in renewable energy deliver genuine carbon reductions? Using palm oil grown in Indonesia as a bio-fuel can be up to 420 times as damaging to the climate as the fossil fuels it replaces.

Indonesia and Malaysia produce the majority of the world’s palm oil, and the rapid growth of the industry in both countries is linked to deforestation, the destruction of peat-lands and the emission of vast quantities of carbon. Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, and 80% of those emissions result from deforestation. 

DECC’s proposal is bringing this destruction to our doorsteps, as bio-fuel company W4B has planning permission to build two bio-liquid power stations in Bristol and Portland, which would burn 120,000 tonnes of palm oil a year.  Planning permission for the former was initially rejected by the local council on environmental grounds – a decision that was overturned by Secretary of State Eric Pickles.  

An area of land twice the size of Bristol will be required to produce enough palm oil to supply less than 10% of the city’s electricity.  If DECC’s plans are approved, this will give the green light to the many other planning applications for bio-liquid power stations, none of which would be financially viable without ROC subsidies.

Under the rules of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, governments do not have to support electricity from bio-liquid fuels, but if they do so then they cannot discriminate against palm oil. This wouldn't solve the problem anyway, as oil palms are by far the most productive vegetable oil crop in the world, so even more land would be put at risk if alternative bio-liquids were used to meet demand.  

Even burning European rapeseed oil is worse for the climate than burning mineral oil, because of emissions linked to fertiliser use and indirect land use change. Besides, waste and residue volumes are so low that they could only meet a tiny proportion of demand.

Burning 500,000 tonnes of bio-liquids would supply just 4% of electricity classed as renewable in the UK, and the vast majority of this would be cheap and readily available palm oil. Providing blanket financial support for bio-liquids would therefore be completely counterproductive to the greening of the UK’s electricity supply, as well as exacerbating threats to biodiversity and livelihoods in palm oil producing countries.

DECC must ensure that ROCs are not used to support electricity generation from burning palm oil. The only way that this can be done is by removing subsidies for all bio-liquids. Germany and the Netherlands have done so – the UK can and must do the same.

Visit to find out more and take action.

Helen Buckland is Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

Image of Oragutan with baby courtesy of