Biofuel today is produced, overwhelmingly, from oil palms and sugar cane, and overwhelmingly, these plantations stand where tropical rainforest recently stood. Over a year ago, a well-documented essay entitled “Worse Than Fossil Fuel,” was published in the London Guardian by George Monbiot, an environmental activist and professor at Oxford-Brookes University in the U.K. In this article, Monbiot states “Between 1985 and 2000 the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia. In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.”
One square mile is equivalent to 250 hectares. So using these figures, in just two countries, deforestation for biofuel will result in the loss of at least 100,000 square miles of rainforest. Along the West African coast and in the Congo basin, similar rates of deforestation are occuring in a mad rush to grow Cassava and Oil Palm. In Brazil, deforestation for sugar cane continues to accelerate.
According to a study entitled “Biodiversity and Conservation” published by Peter J. Bryant, a professor at U.C. Irvine, by 1979, tropical rainforests had shrunk from 6.2 million square miles to 3.6 million square miles. And about that time, beginning in the Amazon, deforestation for production of biofuel began to compete with deforestation for purposes of logging and ranching. Today, tropical rainforests are reduced to 2.5 million square miles, and thanks to the biofuel bonanza, there is no end in sight. Here’s another excerpt from Monbiot’s essay:
“Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.”
It is well and good to consider biofuel farmed from algae grown in ponds in the desert, or within enclosed “bioreactors,” or, perhaps, from cellusosic fibers found in agricultural waste. But none of these methods are yet financially viable, or even technically feasible. Meanwhile, the burning season has begun again, this time fueled by biofuel mania, with results that spell tragedy not only for the biota in these precious places, but also in terms of intensified droughts and less CO2 uptake. As we have argued before and will again, tropical deforestation may have more to do with whatever global warming we may be experiencing than burning of fossil fuel. So where are the environmentalists and the skeptics when you need them?
Here is how Monbiot put it, when describing the reaction to his concerns about biofuel: “The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon.”