Specialists: Biofuels Threatening Virgin Tropical Forest

December 12, 2008

PANAMA CITY – The increased cultivation of crops for biofuels poses a risk to tropical forests and increased carbon emissions, according to scientists taking part in a gathering organized by the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

During last weekend’s international conference, the specialists said that deforestation and land-use changes that must be carried out to introduce exotic species such as the oil palm or sugarcane are some of the harmful consequences of the growing production of biofuels in the world.

Scientist William Laurance said the use of traditional farm land to produce this type of energy also is leading to dramatic increases in the prices of corn, soy and palm oil.

“Looking ahead 30 years, creating energy with palm oil reduces carbon emissions by 30 tons per hectare, but that doesn’t take into account forest loss,” said biologist Renton Righelato of the organization World Land Trust, which protects at-risk habitats.

Although the biofuel production process generates less carbon, the long-term effects are more harmful than those associated with fossil fuels, the experts say.

According to Righelato, in the process of forest conversion to produce these fuels, “more carbon would be emitted than what is saved by (avoiding fossil-fuel production),” one of the main contributors to global warming.

Biofuels are often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but palm oil or soy plantations can harm the environment when they replace tropical forests, which are efficient carbon-storage tools.

Tropical forests are estimated to store around 46 percent of the world’s living terrestrial carbon, while 25 percent of total net global carbon emissions may stem from deforestation.

Righelato also cast doubt on the capacity of biofuels to substitute the diesel fuel currently being used today.

“To replace 60 percent of the global transport fuel would require planting all the arable land we now have in the world and using it to generate biofuels,” Righelato said.

An environmental professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research, Philip Fearnside, gave as an example the situation in the South American country, which is the world leader in biofuels production and also an area where “deforestation is advancing every day.”

“The demand for these fuels also is increasing and the forecasts say that the total of 20 billion liters (5.3 billion gallons) required today will rise to 52 billion in 2017,” he added.

Nevertheless, the researchers did not rule out the possibility of developing less environmentally harmful biofuels and touted the potential of those known as “second generation” or “cellulosic.”

Laurance said there is reason to be optimistic about the possibilities of that variant, but he added “it will be necessary to wait at least two decades for science to find a way to produce it.”

The STRI, the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States, coordinated the one-day international conference – attended by 180 scientists – together with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative and Native Species Reforestation Project also were among the institutions that organized the scientific conference.

 

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