Reforesting vs. Biofuel

In many cases it’s that stark: Either you preserve and expand forests, or you deforest in order to grow biofuel. If you believe, as we do, that tropical forests are far better for the global climate than biofuel plantations – in terms of all three popular measures; global warming, extreme weather, and droughts – then this choice is one with epic consequences. And over the past ten years, with accelerating momentum, the tropical forests of this world have been ripped away, in order to plant sugar cane for bioethanol, and oil palms for biodiesel – while environmentalists look the other way.

Our concern for what we consider to be a global catastrophe is well documented, in posts such as Deforestation Diesel, Brazilian vs. Californian Ethanol, Biofuel Monocultures, Biofueled Global Warming, Biofuel is NOT Carbon Neutral, Biofueled Deforestation, Ethanol & Water, Biofuel or Biohazard?, When Green is Brown, Is Biofuel Water Positive?, and many others. Check all our posts in the Biofuel category, or the posts in our Global Warming category. We haven’t wavered.


Hopefully others are starting to wake up, too. Today on the BBC website, another story appeared entitled “EU Biofuel Policy is a Mistake.” In this story the author reported, in the most unequivocal terms we’ve yet seen, that tropical deforestation for the purpose of growing biofuel is an unmitigated disaster. Here are some quotes from this story:

“…forests could absorb up to nine times more CO2 than the production of biofuels could achieve on the same area of land.”

“The growth of biofuels was also leading to more deforestation… the prime reason for the renewables obligation was to mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.”

“In all cases, the amount of CO2 sequestered (by forests) over a 30-year period is considerably greater than the amount of emissions avoided by using biofuels.”

Not mentioned, but equally significant, is the heat island effect caused by losing the reflectivity of tropical cloud cover, which forms over tropical forests, but doesn’t form over biofuel plantations. Also not mentioned is the heartbreaking impact this devastation has had on wildlife, if anyone in the environmental community cares.

Our mission when we launched EcoWorld in 1993 was to promote reforesting, and since then, particularly in the tropics where it counts, we have lost ground. Our skepticism regarding the role of industrial CO2 in climate change, our support of nuclear power, our refusal to demonize the auto industry or the oil industry (or the entire private sector, for that matter), and our derision for litigious fanatics who make it nearly impossible to build homes on sacred “open space,” in no way diminishes our commitment to the environment – to clean air and water (CO2 is NOT pollution), wildlife preservation, and rational progress towards sustainability in all things. But we are practical environmentalists.

Humanity – and the global ecosystem – would almost certainly be better off if we extracted and refined up to 2.0 trillion barrels of heavy oil from the Orinoco basin and the Athabasca Tar Sands, a combined area of only 75,000 square miles. That disruption – and apparently even the associated CO2 emissions – is far less than continuing to deforest the tropics for biofuel. There are only 3.0 million square miles of tropical rainforest left, down from 8.0 million only 150 years ago. We need to reforest the tropics, not deforest them. The very idea that European CO2 mitigation credits are financing tropical rainforest destruction to grow biofuel is one of the most obscene ironies in the history of the human race.


Categorized | Energy & Fuels, History, Nuclear, Other
3 Responses to “Reforesting vs. Biofuel”
  1. Brian Hayes says:

    I agree entirely with your assertion that forests should be planted, restored, preserved. A mad rush for biofuel may be a huge mistake if forests are traded for mileage and heat.

    But biofuel may not be a primary cause of current deforestation.

    Except Indonesia’s palm oils, Biopact makes a strong argument that biofuels are not planted at the cost of forests. It may be that biofuels will ultimately increase land reclamation, i.e. marginal land recovery.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Brian: Absolutely. In arid regions, biofuel crops can advance the life zone. But biofuel crops in arid regions have relatively low yields. And since world markets continue to build for biodiesel and bioethanol, tropical deforestation for biofuel has barely begun. Even when cellulosic ethanol is on the market, and biodiesel is grown from algae, it won’t change the fact that if Orangutans die a few more dollars of fuel will come where the forest was.

    And a healthy global climate requires more tropical rainforest, not less, particularly if you are concerned about global warming. Carbon credits should fund tropical reforestation, not tropical biofuel crops. That is the only way we will save the lungs of this earth.

  3. Luis says:

    Great post!

    If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts won’t either.
    As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, http://LivePaths.com blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

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