08/10/2007 (The Age) - Conservation group the Humane Society International (HSI) says a new federal government move to check sources of palm oil importations has focused attention on a burgeoning deforestation problem in tropical countries.
The attraction of palm oil products as an alternative to greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels has led to clearing of tropical forests for palm plantations, notably in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he would raise the issue at a United Nations climate change meeting in Bali in December, to push for a certification regime on the sourcing of palm oil products.
It follows criticism the government is spending $54 million subsidising biodiesel products derived from palm oil, a far higher figure than the $7.5 million it has allocated to help save Indonesia's rainforests.
Under the cleaner fuels grants scheme (CFGS), the government provides grants in relation to the manufacture and importation of eligible cleaner fuels, including palm oil.
Mr Turnbull said while Australia's imports of palm oil are small relative to the global industry, he had asked his department to report to him on both the domestic and international position on palm oil production and use and to consult with major palm oil importing countries, especially in Europe.
He said he intended to take a proposal to the UN climate change meeting to establish an international certification scheme.
"I am advised that the two biodiesel plants which have commenced operations in Australia in the last year and which use palm oil have both undertaken to source their feedstock through companies that abide by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)," he said.
"The RSPO was established in 2002 to ensure palm oil was produced sustainably."
Mr Turnbull said that if palm oil was produced in areas which had previously been cleared for agriculture, biodiesel based on that palm oil did have a considerable reduction in CO2 emissions compared to petroleum.
"However, if the land is cleared of rainforest or, worse still, forested peatland is cleared, the CO2 emissions attributed to that palm oil are in fact greater than petroleum," he said.
Labor's environment spokesman Peter Garrett compared Mr Turnbull's position on the two policy issues to a car crash.
"This is the sort of public policy car crash we have come to expect from the Howard government," he said.
"It's a collision that doesn't need to happen, and wouldn't be happening if the government had been paying attention and prepared themselves for climate change over the last decade."
HSI spokeswoman Rebecca Keeble said escalating global demand for palm oil for biodiesel and as an additive in food and toiletry products had led to an increase in habitat degradation as tropical forests made way for palm oil plantations.
"Currently, there is no certification system in place that verifies that any palm oil produced, anywhere in the world, is from sustainable practices, so we commend the government for committing to furthering an international certification scheme of this nature at the UN climate change meetings in December."