David Cameron's efforts to promote trade and overseas investment have come in for some criticism during his time in office. From taking arms dealers to the Middle East to glad-handing with Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, he's not known for asking hard questions of foreign friends with deep pockets.
On the face of it, the new Battersea Power Station project he recently kicked off with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak is a more positive proposition. The £8 billion project will see a Malaysian consortium build luxury housing, offices, shops, and potentially a power plant run on biofuels. The launch was rich with the promise of collaboration and regeneration, with Cameron predicting that "those famous chimneys... won't be a symbol of decay but a sign of renewal."
Britain needs strong, mutually beneficial relationships with emerging powers, and it needs to wean itself off its reliance on fossil fuels to prevent runaway climate change and ensure economic sustainability. But before we welcome a deal like this as a win-win solution, we must take a closer look at who is behind it and what their business model actually means for the future of the planet.
The Malaysian consortium backing the Battersea project is jointly headed up by Sime Darby, one of the world's largest producers of palm oil. That's the commodity used in everything from lipstick to confectionary, which can also be burned as a biofuel. Malaysia and Indonesia account for around 85 per cent of palm oil production, and the industry's expansion is driving widespread deforestation in these countries. Recently, fires driven by forest clearance for plantations in Sumatra famously suffocated much of the region in smog. Satellite analysis indicated that some of these fires occurred within concessions owned by Sime Darby subsidiaries, though the company has denied responsibility.
The group has inherited outline planning permission for a biofuel powered power plant from Battersea's previous owners, leaving it open to them to apply for full permission later this year. If the Malaysians do build such a plant and burn palm oil to fuel it, it will fit neatly with wider efforts to market their product as the solution to Europe's energy needs, and the best way to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes no sense at all. By far the best way to curb emissions and tackle climate change is to leave rainforests - one of the best carbon sinks - standing, not chop them down to make way for plantations, then ship the oil around the world to burn.
As things stand, there is no doubt that growing palm oil is an increasingly lucrative business. That's why the palm oil giants, quickly running out of forests to convert into plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, are now looking abroad for cheap land and cheap labour. Their sights are trained most keenly on Central and West Africa, with Battersea backer Sime Darby right on the frontier. A recent study of its projects in Liberia by the University of Reading raised concerns that that the development could result in deforestation, displacement of rural communities, increased food insecurity and chronic poverty.
The UK has pumped millions of pounds in taxpayer aid money into helping Liberia's government preserve its rainforests, which are crucial to the country's sustainable development. But if the Battersea consortium goes ahead with developing a biofuel plant, it will help drive demand for the one product mostly likely to trash those very same forests. What better advert for palm oil as the future of electricity generation in the UK than the rejuvenation of Britain's most iconic power station?
David Cameron is right to look for new forms of investment to meet our energy needs - it is critically important. But he has to stay focused on what is good for the future of the planet, as well as our short term requirements and trade relationships. He should be asking these companies what they plan to do to curb the destruction going on in their own back yard, rather than bending over backwards to offer them a new market. We should also be looking for genuinely green alternative ways to service our energy demands, and make sure we as end users know what is being done to faraway parts of the planet to get hold of the commodities we use every day. The solutions might not be straightforward, but the debate needs to be had before investments like this one are made.
Cameron should use the opportunity to open up debate about the way forward for Britain on energy. Do the residents of Battersea's new luxury apartments, or guests at its proposed five star hotel want their under floor heating or luxury lighting fuelling deforestation in the tropics? It's a question they should at least be asked.