Tropical Forests, Bioenergy, and Biodiversity

In many ways, tropical climates seem ideally suited to produce biomass for ethanol or pulp mills. Plants grow quickly in the heat and moisture, providing a huge return on investment.

Not surprisingly, more and more tropical land is being converted into sources of bioenergy. Indonesia, for example, is expected to devote more than 10 million hectares to oil palms, jatropha, cassava and sugarcane for biofuel production by 2015 , at least double the land used for biofuel in 2010. About four million of those hectares will be planted with oil palms, a lucrative and controversial oil crop that can be used for both biodiesel and cooking oil.

Some of these energy crops and plantations are planted on land that had already been cleared for agriculture, such as rubber plantations. But that’s not always the case. In recent years, the quest for green energy in the tropics has raised serious concerns among conservationists, especially where native forests have been razed for energy crops and plantations.

Although sugarcane ethanol is often blamed for tropical deforestation, the vast majority of the nearly eight million hectares of sugarcane in Brazil are grown more than 2,000 km from the Amazon. Even so, in 2010, Brazil fined more than two dozen companies for illegally clearing 143,000 acres of Atlantic rainforest to plant sugarcane intended for ethanol.

Although nearly 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest cover has been destroyed since 1970, Brazil began a crackdown on illegal deforestation in 2008, recording satellite data of deforested lands and dispatching environmental police to some endangered areas. The annual rate of forest loss last year was the lowest in 25 years, an 85 percent drop from the peak in 1995. But the deforestation that is occurring continues to remove habitat for mammals, birds, and insects, many of which are endangered or threatened. And in some cases, the trade-off between forests and biofuels may actually be accelerating climate change, not slowing it down.

A 2008 study published in Conservation Letters found that more than 50 percent of the oil palms planted in Indonesia and Malaysia between 1990 and 2005 replaced native forests , triggering a significant loss of biodiversity. By 2010, the journal reported, imperiled birds on the island of Borneo were 200 times more abundant in intact forests than on oil palm plantations.

In fact, only about 15 percent of forest plant and animal species remain after native forests are converted to oil palm plantations, according to estimates by Dr. Matthew Potts, an assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley.

Eucalyptus plantations in Brazil are somewhat richer with native wildlife, but they still take a toll on biodiversity. A 2013 study in the Journal of Forestry Research found that only about half of the butterflies, lizards, frogs, and bees that were known to live in the area could be found on a large plantation.

Going forward, land managers, bioenergy companies, and governments must cooperate to prevent massive tropical deforestation and instead use available land that has already been cleared, Potts says. “Stakeholders need to work together to develop the oil palm sector in a way that minimizes new deforestation,” he adds.

A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that Indonesia could add another 30 million acres of oil palm (enough to produce another 400 million tons of oil every year) with a minimal loss of biodiversity by simply avoiding forested land.

The location of new plantations and energy crops can also have strong implications for carbon balance. In theory, oil palms should be roughly carbon neutral because the trees soak up as much carbon as they release when burned. But removing native forests in carbon-rich peatlands to make way for plantations releases significant carbon into the air.

A 2011 study in Ecology and Society estimated that it could take 211 years for an oil palm plantation in such areas to be carbon neutral. And a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund projects that “savannah-ization” and climate change could turn the Amazon from a net sink to a net source of carbon dioxide during our lifetimes.

The United Nations has developed a program intended to protect tropical forests and reduce carbon emissions in developing countries. UN-REDD, short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, uses carbon trading as one of its main tools. But that approach has been ineffective and short-sighted, says Chris Lang, operator of the site Redd-Monitor.com.

Again, Indonesia provides an example of the problems at hand. Norway has pledged $1 billion to support REDD in that country. To get the bulk of that money, Indonesia will have to show that it has reduced the rate of deforestation. But as Lang says, “Indonesia can make … a lot more money clearing the forest, selling the timber, and growing palm oil than it can waiting for a billion dollars from Norway.”

Finding ways to balance ecosystem services against social and economic development is especially challenging. As people in the developing world strive to improve their standard of living, pressure on native ecosystems is bound to increase. Partnerships to implement sustainability standards – including biodiversity and carbon accounting – is one promising route. In this strategy, groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm and the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production pair industry leaders with environmental groups to encourage responsible development and transparency.

 

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