Correspondence between the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the British High Commission reveals British officials have warned supporting the ban could prompt Kuala Lumpur to rule out a multimillion pound deal to replace its fleet of fighter jets with British built Typhoon aircraft.
In January MEPs voted to end the use of palm oil in biodiesel which has grown in popularity among European drivers. The EU is Malaysia’s third biggest market for palm oil. It is also widely used in mass produced foods and cosmetic products.
Just two weeks later, an official at the British high commission in Malaysia sent an email warning the EU vote was a “big issue for Malaysia and, if not handled correctly, has the potential to impact on bilateral trade, particularly defence sales (Typhoon)”.
It added: “We should expect every minister engaging with Malaysia to be lobbied on palm oil.”
In an email sent the same day, an MoD official also warned the palm oil ban “could affect our bilateral relationship and potentially defence sales”.
On 13 February, weapons manufacturer BAE systems announced it could provide Malaysia with a UK government-backed financing deal, worth over £1.5bn to replace its fleet of ageing Russian MiG-29s with the Eurofighter Typhoon.
BAE employs over 5,000 people in the UK on the Typhoon manufacturing programme.
The Malaysian government has also been considering France’s Rafale combat jet as a possible replacement for its air fleet. France and a handful of other EU countries have promised to oppose the palm oil ban.
The emails, revealed in an Freedom of Information request by Greenpeace, show British diplomats in Kuala Lumpur even expected Malaysian Prime Minister Najob Razak to personally lobby Theresa May on the EU vote at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. However, he did not end up attending the event.
Palm oil production has seen the deforestation of vast tracts of rainforest across Malaysia and Indonesia, threatening species including tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction. Rapid deforestation has occurred in areas where authorities have struggled to prevent illegal logging.
It is estimated numbers of orangutans have fallen by 150,000 across Indonesia since 2002. The country is also lobbying the EU against bans on importing palm oil.
Over 7 million tonnes of palm oil was imported by the EU in 2016, over half of which was turned into biodiesel.
The biofuel is claimed to be renewable, but several studies have suggested they are not a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and still have a significant carbon footprint.
The British government has not yet stated its position on the EU vote, or how it will build trade ties with Malaysia after Brexit without concessions on palm oil.
A spokesman for the Department for International Trade told Greenpeace: “There is a strong trade and investment relationship between the UK and Malaysia. As we leave the EU, we look forward to deepening our engagement with emerging markets in South East Asia.
“The UK has not used palm oil in the production of biofuels for a number of years and the use of non-waste oil in biofuel is minimal. The government has also agreed to focus on utilizing waste derived biofuel, which generally has higher carbon savings.”
The Independent has contacted the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for comment.
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