Hundreds of millions of tonnes of palm oil look set to be pumped into Britain's vehicles despite scientific evidence showing that chopping down rainforests to make way for plantations exacerbates climate change, according to a leaked report.
The European Commission is planning to increase the amount of palm oil used in cars and power stations under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is intended to reduce greenhouse gases, suggests the document.
A loophole in the draft communication from Brussels on implementation of the directive would allow almost all palm oil currently produced to be used in vehicles on British roads.
The development – which campaigners warned have would lead to fresh bouts of forest destruction in Asia to meet growing global demand for the oil – comes after an intense campaign of lobbying in Brussels by Malaysian producers who feared the EU would ban imports of palm oil for energy.
Britons use 50 billion litres of transport fuel a year, 2.7 per cent of which came from biofuels in 2008-09. Palm oil, which is primarily used in food and household products, already controversially forms part of that fuel mix.
The Government says it is keen to avoid use of environmentally damaging materials but admits there is insufficient data about the provenance of 42 per cent of transport biofuel used in the UK. Under the RED, passed last year, Britain and other EU states are required to source 10 per cent of petrol and diesel in road transport from renewable sources. Part of that will be accounted for by electrical vehicles but the majority is expected to come from plant-based fuels such as rapeseed, soy, palm and sugar cane.
The EC document ostensibly protects wildlife areas that could grow these plants by banning member states from sourcing fuel from greenhouse gas-sequestering grasslands, wetlands and forests. But, in a crucial exemption, the protection does not apply to habitats changed before January 2008, meaning the vast majority of palm oil produced may be used, even though much of it comes from plantations that have replaced forests in the past 15 years.
The policy is almost certain to increase demand for palm oil, which can only be grown in tropical climates in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian countries, West Africa and the Amazon in Brazil. Rainforests have strong carbon credentials; they suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow.
According to a study by Denmark's Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology, published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2008, it would take between 75 and 93 years for the benefits to the climate generated by switching to biofuels to outweigh the detrimental effects of converting rainforest to plantations.
Forests in the biggest palm oil-producing countries of Malaysia and Indonesia are rich in rare wildlife, including the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, but about 90 per cent of an area's flora and fauna are lost when the land is converted to monoculture plantations where the plants are grown in straight lines. Some palm oil producers have also been linked to human rights abuses.
According to a Department of Transport study, palm oil is forecast to account for 45 per cent of Europe's biodiesel by 2020. The EC declined to comment on the draft document.
Friends of the Earth's agri-fuels campaign coordinator Adrian Bebb said: "I know the Commission officials and they're trying to get palm oil in." Robert Palgrave of Biofuelswatch said: "If you expand the palm oil business for food, fuel or cosmetics, more forest will be destroyed."