Forests paying the price for biofuels - News | Print | New Scientist
22 November 2005
THE drive for "green energy" in the developed world is having the perverse
effect of encouraging the destruction of tropical rainforests. From the
orang-utan reserves of Borneo to the Brazilian Amazon, virgin forest is
being razed to grow palm oil and soybeans to fuel cars and power stations in
Europe and North America. And surging prices are likely to accelerate the
The rush to make energy from vegetable oils is being driven in part by
European Union laws requiring conventional fuels to be blended with
biofuels, and by subsidies equivalent to 20 pence a litre. Last week, the
British government announced a target for biofuels to make up 5 per cent of
transport fuels by 2010. The aim is to help meet Kyoto protocol targets for
reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Rising demand for green energy has led to a surge in the international price
of palm oil, with potentially damaging consequences. "The expansion of palm
oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction in
south-east Asia. It is one of the most environmentally damaging commodities
on the planet," says Simon Counsell, director of the UK-based Rainforest
Foundation. "Once again it appears we are trying to solve our environmental
problems by dumping them in developing countries, where they have
devastating effects on local people."
The main alternative to palm oil is soybean oil. But soya is the largest
single cause of rainforest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon. Supporters
of biofuels argue that they can be "carbon neutral" because the CO2 released
from burning them is taken up again by the next crop. Interest is greatest
for diesel engines, which can run unmodified on vegetable oil, and in
Germany bio-diesel production has doubled since 2003. There are also plans
for burning palm oil in power stations.
Until recently, Europe's small market in biofuels was dominated by
home-grown rapeseed (canola) oil. But surging demand from the food market
has raised the price of rapeseed oil too. This has led fuel manufacturers to
opt for palm and soya oil instead. Palm oil prices jumped 10 per cent in
September alone, and are predicted to rise 20 per cent next year, while
global demand for biofuels is now rising at 25 per cent a year.
Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth UK, which backs biofuels, says: "We
need to ensure that the crops used to make the fuel have been grown in a
sustainable way or we will have rainforests cleared for palm oil plantations
to make bio-diesel."