One thing is for certain: Biofuels are generating enormous buzz. Government and business leaders worldwide are touting agricultural crops as sources of energy that are more climate-friendly than fossil fuels. But just how environmentally friendly is it to convert natural resources like sugar cane, corn, and palm oil into fuel?
Today, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a report to address how we can reduce heat-trapping gas emissions, experts at Conservation International (CI) are intent on making sure biofuels benefit the global climate, human welfare, and biodiversity alike.
Biofuels may have the potential to fuel our cars, heat our homes, and generate electricity in a cleaner manner than fossil fuels, but there is a downside.
According to CI experts, the practice of clearing land to grow crops for biofuels poses a looming threat to the worlds biologically rich forests, peatlands, grasslands, and wetlands. Burning and clearing intact ecosystems to make way for sugar cane and other crops that can be converted into fuel could destroy the very habitats that store nearly a quarter of the worlds carbon a natural means of tempering climate change.
In other words, the solution could be more destructive than the problem.
"Biofuels probably are the largest single threat to the conservation of the tropical forests across the world," says Tim Killeen, senior research fellow in CIs Center for Applied Biodiversity Science.
Biofuels Production in Brazil
Producing biofuels on natural forests and grasslands is tempting for investors. Natural habitats are often less expensive than cleared land. With no clear owner, government-controlled land in remote areas is therefore often obtained for free simply by occupying it. It is also frequently easier to obtain one large forested region rather than piecing together many small land holdings for production.
Already a world leader in producing biofuels, Brazil is grappling with that temptation. Brazils favorable climate for year-round growing enables the country to produce far more sugar cane-based ethanol a biofuel substitute for gasoline than American farmers achieve from corn yields. Brazil is also successfully reducing the need for chemical fertilizers while improving yields. The country mitigates more than 40 percent of total emissions in its transportation system by producing more than 3.7 billion gallons of ethanol from sugar cane to displace oil.
Though seemingly good news in the face of globally rising greenhouse gas emissions, ballooning demand for biofuels is compelling Brazil to rev up production. To do so, the country could be tempted to rely more heavily on regions that conservationists have been vigorously working to protect from deforestation: the Cerrado, the Pantanal, and the Brazilian Amazon. The Amazon is the worlds largest tropical rain forest and home to the most abundant biodiversity on the planet.
In the short term, expanding Brazils sugar cane production will likely rely on converting existing pastures to sugar cane, which could displace cattle production into the Amazon. In the longer term, "if commodity prices remain high, you can expect more sugar mills to be built in more remote areas and the agricultural frontier will expand," Killeen says.
Brazil is also expanding other types of energy feedstocks like those derived from soy and African oil palms. While ethanol replaces gasoline, vegetable oils like African palm oil and soy will displace diesel. Biofuels made from palm oil may hold promise for small land holders, but their production is already contributing to destruction of tropical rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Better Biofuels Solutions
To avoid deforestation and safeguard human welfare, CIs climate team is advising governments and companies with interests in pursuing biofuels to ensure that we dont degrade lands or trade one environmental problem for another.
Michael Totten, chief advisor of climate and water initiatives for CIs Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), says using land already deforested, degraded, or abandoned rather than clearing more trees would prevent people from removing or converting existing, intact ecosystems. He says those are fundamental standards for acceptable biofuels production.
"Our challenge is to make sure that they use already cleared lands, whether theyre abandoned or otherwise, both to avoid deforestation and to make sure they dont indirectly contribute to deforestation by displacing what was already on that land," says John Buchanan, CELBs senior director of business practices.
Conservationists can also provide leaders with detailed information about a regions biodiversity value to help them understand where it would be least damaging to expand biofuel plantations. Totten says companies and governments could further curb the negative ecological impacts of biofuels production by offsetting their actions with funding to protect key biodiversity areas.
Above all, it is crucial to simultaneously pursue other lower cost and lower risk solutions to global fuel challenges. Among those is a large pool of energy-efficiency options to displace oil, and emerging electricity-based options like plug-in hybrid electric vehicles powered by wind and solar resources.