Why Belgium's New Biofuel Law Jeopardizes the EU's Sustainability Goals | Opinion

Earth Day last week signaled an important reminder to the world—we have a last-ditch opportunity to reverse climate change. It's no wonder why Belgium recently passed a landmark law designed to address its culpability in deforestation, one of the leading causes of climate change. Belgium's bill, however, failed to consider some serious consequences. If other EU nations follow suit, global sustainability goals will be forever jeopardized.

There is no denying the EU has a problem with deforestation. A recent WWF report called Europe the largest importer of tropical deforestation after China, comprising 16 percent of global deforestation. Only eight countries in Europe—Belgium included—contribute to 80 percent of the EU's total footprint.

Beginning 2022, Belgium will ban palm oil and soy as a biofuel—two commodities implicated in deforestation. Neither of these vegetable oils will be featured in the Belgian market or transportation sector, meaning Belgians will need to find alternatives.

This will carry unintended consequences—ones that cannot be ignored.

Palm oil is recognized as an extremely efficient crop. An International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study demonstrated that if palm oil was banned, crops like rapeseed, sunflower or coconut would flourish in its place. However, those crops need up to 10 times more land (and fertilizer) to produce the same amount of oil. Boycotts such as these ignore the blatant advantage palm oil has over other crops and will displace the effects of deforestation throughout other parts of the world.

Importantly, the Belgium ban ignores what happens when producer countries are forced to sell elsewhere—especially if reports that countries like Germany, Denmark and Italy follow suit. This would lead to a scenario where producers are forced to sell their commodities to countries with less environmental regulations, creating a situation where farmers do not feel compelled to invest in sustainable methods of production.

Is there another way?

One novel answer comes from the United Kingdom. Instead of boycotting commodities like palm oil, the U.K.'s Environment Bill focuses on developed nations becoming partners with producer nations in implementing sustainability standards—creating a collaboration structure which has never fully been optimized before.

The flag of the European Union flies. Ken Jack/Getty Images

In particular, this fixes one of the biggest issues with deforestation—supply chain due diligence which verifies if commodities have been sustainably produced. U.K. importers would need to ensure their products were produced according to the environmental laws of the producing nation, and if not, importing the commodity would be illegal.

It is not hard to imagine how a combination of multi-stakeholder initiatives would impact deforestation. In Malaysia, the implementation of new partnerships, certification schemes and development laws resulted in a four year decrease in deforestation.

The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification system, which was formed and implemented with EU environmental regulations in mind, is nationally mandated and enforced by law. As of now, almost 90 percent of plantations meet its criteria, something which would not be possible without various political, social and legal pressures.

While bans on specific commodities are understandable—though this would be more apt for beef, which is responsible for several times the emission rates as palm oil, yet faces minimal regulations—this jeopardizes the opportunity for EU countries to influence sustainability practices abroad, hold supply chains accountable, reward good practice and enforce due diligence.

Quite frankly, if we want to stop deforestation practices, we must develop a repertoire with producing nations, one which encourages sustainable development and enforcement. Importantly, new partnerships must be considered, collaborations which revolutionize global agricultural practices.

It is no secret that 2021 may be the last year to adequately address climate change. But closing the door on producer nations and disinviting them from the sustainability debate will only lead to deforestation out of our control. If deforestation is left to spiral unchecked, it will be impossible to stop climate change.

That is a dangerous precedent the world cannot afford.

Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specializing in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare. She also concentrates on media and politics in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.