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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Biodiesel creating environmental havoc?

WIIIAI links to a George Monbiot article on how increased demand for biodiesel in Europe is destroying huge amounts of rainforest in Indonesia. WIIIAI summarizes it as "George Monbiot on why biodiesel sucks." Now WIIIAI is one of my favorite bloggers, but I think he hasn't exactly got Monbiot right, and I don't think Monbiot is entirely correct either. Here's a lengthy excerpt from Monbiot's article:
When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land use. Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world's most carbon-intensive fuel.

In promoting biodiesel - as the EU, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do - you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Last week, the chairman of Malaysia's federal land development authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant. His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam. Two foreign consortiums - one German, one American - are setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

"The demand for biodiesel," the Malaysian Star reports, "will come from the European Community ... This fresh demand ... would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia's crude palm oil inventories." Why? Because it is cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impact of palm oil production. "Between 1985 and 2000," it found, "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 have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia.

Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

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 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.
Of course, as a biodiesel user and advocate, I take this personally. I can't really argue with Monbiot's facts. He goes on to say that the supposedly eco-conscious British and EU governments have considered blocking the importing of palm oil or palm-oil biodiesel. But they use the WTO's "free trade" rules as an excuse for not doing so. Monbiot points out that the real reason is, of course, that the EU way of life, like the American way of life is non-negotiable. They may drive higher mileage cars fewer miles than we do, but they still drive a lot. And imported biodiesel allows them to postpone the long emergency a little longer (even though it will likely make it worse through global warming).

Anyway, I left WIIIAI a comment about his "biodiesel sucks" conclusion:
I think Monbiot also is saying that globalization sucks, the British government sucks, the Indonesian government sucks, and driving sucks. That biodiesel is being used to avoid negotiating the American way of life and to destroy the Indonesian rainforest really sucks. But biodiesel doesn't inherently suck any more than computers do despite spam or elections do despite Bush. Of course it is wrong to believe that biofuels can support our current excesses or that they are by definition sustainable. It is also wrong to believe that they can't be produced sustainably or that they have no role to play in a sustainable future.

Hopefully European environmentalists (and Europeans in general) will realize that importing biodiesel isn't green at all. But I hope they don't just give up on biodiesel entirely.