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Forest Vs. Biofuels

December 1, 2008

Scientists from seven nations released a new study on Monday that finds clearing tropical forests in order to plant biofuels harms the environment by reducing animal and plant diversity.

Biofuels are considered greener than fossil fuels because plants absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as they grow.

“Keeping tropical rain forests intact is a better way to combat climate change than replacing them with biofuel plantations,” the scientists wrote in a report about the study.

In South East Asia, millions of hectares of forest land have been converted to palm oil plantations to produce biofuels. 

The study, conducted by scientists from the U.S., Netherlands, Malaysia, Germany, Indonesia, Britain and Denmark, was unveiled on the opening day of a meeting in Poland of 187 nations that seek consensus on a new U.N. climate treaty. 

According to the research, it would take 75 years for carbon emissions saved from the use of biofuels to compensate for carbon released into the atmosphere by burning down a forest to clear it for a biofuel plantation. And if the habitat was carbon-rich peatland, it would take more than 600 years to reach the break even point. 

However, the study found that planting biofuels on degraded grasslands could lead to a net removal of carbon after only ten years.

“Sourcing biofuel feedstock from crops such as palm oil simply doesn’t make environmental sense,” Emily Fitzherbert from the University of East Anglia, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters.

The spread of biofuel plantations in Asia has also resulted in a loss of habitat for species such as orangutans and rhinos, the report said. 

However, the problems are not just in South East Asia.

“In Latin America, forests are being cleared for soy production which is even less efficient at biofuel production compared to oil palm,” said co-author Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Center.

“Subsidies to purchase tropical biofuels are given by countries in Europe and North America supposedly to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from transport,” said the study’s lead author, Finn Danielsen, of Denmark’s Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology.

The researchers said that only one in six forest animal species could survive in plantations. Furthermore, plants species that thrive alongside palm oil in plantations are typically the ones that like bright sunshine, while forest species such as orchids, lianas, native palms and others that favor shade die out.

The authors recommend the development of common global standards for the sustainable production of biofuels, and suggest that reducing deforestation is a preferable approach for countries to fight climate change while meeting their obligations to protect biodiversity.

The study was published in the journal Conservation Biology.
 
Image Courtesy Wikipedia

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