Biofuels and the danger of exploiting the tropics for our liquid fuel thirst

Roz Naylor argued in her interview with us last year that a push for biofuels in the US or Europe may have significant consequences globally. Naturally, countries that rely on food crops that can either be used to generate biofuels, or are being supplanted by biofuels crops, can be negatively affected. Case in point is the so-called tortilla crisis, that is, the highly increased prices for corn after strong support of corn-based ethanol that impact large populations in Mexico and elsewhere for which corn is a staple food.

Tropical land is ideally suited to biomass crops, and many tropical countries have abundant arable lands, low labor costs, lack of environmental restrictions and a great desire to generate income through exports, especially at high oil prices. As a result, a strong demand for biofuels on the global market can easily lead to an increase in biofuel crops planted in the tropics with potentially large environmental consequences, including deforestation. A clear example is the increased acreage of palm oil plantations in Indonesia after the EU mandate for a minimum percentage of biomass derived liquid fuels. As the EU could not supply the biofuels, palm oil imports rose dramatically with a consequent expansion of the palm oil industry into rainforests. In fact, Indonesia’s palm oil production tripled in the 1990s and then double again from 2000 to 2007 as global consumption of ethanol increased by a factor of four, approximately, and biodiesel by a factor of ten.

Biofuel producers often say that new plantations or fields are established on degraded lands or lands that have already been cleared, but this is a controversial issue, and has been shown in several cases to be incorrect. To shed light on this matter, Holly Gibbs, a researcher at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, analyzed detailed satellite images collected between 1980 and 2000 to characterize pathsways of agricultural expansion in the tropics, and quantify the types of land being cleared to make space for the new cropland. Holly’s satellite studies clearly indicated that forests were the primary source for new croplands, whether for fuel, feed or food, during the 1980s and 1990s, and this trend is likely to continue. Although a great and valuable start to claridying the biofuel-deforestation connection, further analysis of more recent satellite images is necessary to find clear and indisputable correlations.

If globally biofuels are to a large extent grown in place of forests, they are certainly not going to do any good to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Cut trees are generally burned, leading to CO2 emissions that are higher than any potential reductions. In an interview with the Stanford Report (Feb 18, 2009 ) Holly Gibbs argues that planting biofuel croplands on degraded land could have an overall positive environmental impact. I am not convinced. This depends a lot on needed use of fertilizers and water availability, to name but two important factors. Also, investments are higher and without stricter regulations and new incentives, such as subsidies degraded lands will not be utilized. Moreover, it is likely better for lowering carbon concentration in the atmosphere to allow the land to return to its original forested state, and absorb carbon while growing.

A worthwhile read, the interview with Holly can be found at…


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