Biofuels add fuel to forest fires

A new report looks at the impact of global biofuel policies on tropical deforestation. Palm oil and soy, in particular, are biofuel feedstocks that are associated with high deforestation risk. The report analyses biofuel policies in all key markets and assesses the impact on demand for palm oil and soy-based biofuels in the coming decade. The conclusions of the report are alarming.

Rainforest Foundation Norway - Oslo, Norway, March 10, 2020

Key findings:

  • Current ambitions for the use of biofuels is likely to lead to a massive increase in demand for palm oil and soy by 2030. Total demand for palm oil may increase to 61 mill tons, equal to 90% of current palm oil production, and demand for soy oil may increase to 41 million tons, almost 75% of current production. (high demand scenario)
  • This increase would cause an estimated 7 million hectares of deforestation, including up to 3.6 mill ha of peat drainage.
  • Global CO2 emissions from this additional deforestation are estimated to be 11.5 billion tons – more than China’s current annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.
  • The aviation industry is potentially the largest consumer of high deforestation risk biofuels, followed by Indonesia and Brazil.

The world is in a dual ecological crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss. Tropical deforestation and peat destruction are major contributors to these crises, resulting in carbon dioxide emissions from lost vegetation and disturbed soils and driving the massive extinction of species. The global biofuel industry stands at the nexus between these climate change and biodiversity crises and is therefore in a prime position to effect meaningful change.

“Current biofuel policies around the world may lead to massive deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Policymakers and industries must halt the use of high-deforestation risk feedstock for biofuels, like palm oil and soy, to ensure that biofuel policies don’t have an adverse impact on the climate and increase rainforest destruction,” says Nils Hermann Ranum, head of Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Drivers of Deforestation Program.

“Biofuels were supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but this is not what’s happening in reality. If decision-makers don’t avoid crop biofuels and especially high-risk feedstock like palm oil and soy, biofuel policies risk adding fuel to the current forest fires around the world,” says Laura Buffet, energy director of Transport & Environment, Europe's leading NGO campaigning for cleaner transport.

Increased production of palm oil and soy has led to massive deforestation in Southeast Asia and South America, and the report reveals that biofuels are currently by far the major driver of demand for vegetable oils.

  • Biofuels accounted for 40% of vegetable oil demand increase since 2015.
  • Palm oil (incl. PFAD) and soy are the two vegetable oils with the highest deforestation risk and are unsuitable as biofuel feedstocks.

“Biofuels based on palm oil and soy are expected to cause higher GHG emissions than fossil diesel. Increased production of palm oil and soy oil has resulted in massive tropical deforestation over the last two decades. The EU and the US have introduced measures to avoid palm oil-based biofuels due to high deforestation risk, but globally demand for high deforestation risk biofuels is still increasing. That has to change, and fast”, says the author of the report, renowned biofuels expert Dr. Chris Malins.

The original version of this report incorrectly identified the increase in global vegetable oil production from 2015 to 2018 as 13 million tonnes, and stated that biofuel demand accounted for 90% of this. The correct figure is 27 million tonnes, of which biofuel demand accounts for 40%. This has now been corrected.

The new report can be downloaded in English, here.

For further comments, contact:

  • Head of Rainforest Foundation Norway's Drivers of Deforestation Program, Nils Hermann Ranum, by email ( or phone (+47 99 00 10 32); or
  • The author of the report, Dr. Chris Malins, by email or phone, +44 (0)7905 051 671.