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Forests paying the price for biofuels - News | Print | New Scientist
22 November 2005

Fred Pearce

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."

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