Clearing Indonesian rainforests for biofuel

I have already mentioned how important rainforests are to climatic stability. Likewise, the acute danger that biofuel production will lead to increased deforestation, either directly – through the madness that is palm oil biofuel – or indirectly – by increasing the price of crops like corn, the value of agricultural land, and the profits to be made from cutting down rainforest and growing cheaper things like soy there instead.

This video – found via Grist – does a good job of attaching some visuals to the argument. Unhappily enough, this crazy conversion of rainforest into palm oil biofuels is taking place in the very state where the UNFCCC is meeting right now, in order to try to tackle the problem of climate change.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “Clearing Indonesian rainforests for biofuel”

  1. This kind of thing makes the actions being taken by individuals in rich countries seem pretty pointless. Why use compact fluorescent lights when our total home energy usage is dwarfed in climatic impact by just forest burning in just this one country?

  2. I don’t have the link, but there exist analogous examples where rainforests are flooded for hydro power. Or, for a canal, in one famous case. The amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere by these projects is immense.

  3. Tristan,

    That is no doubt true. What makes the case described above especially galling is that at least some people believe that palm oil from cleared rainforest is more environmentally friendly than petroleum.

  4. In Canada, approximately 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, half of which are from personal vehicles (e.g., passenger cars, minivans, pickup trucks, SUVs).

  5. Forest Loss in Sumatra Becomes a Global Issue
    NY Times

    KUALA CENAKU, Indonesia, Dec. 1 — Here on the island of Sumatra, about 1,200 miles from the global climate talks under way on Bali, are some of the world’s fastest-disappearing forests.

    A look at this vast wasteland of charred stumps and dried-out peat makes the fight to save Indonesia’s forests seem nearly impossible.

    “What can we possibly do to stop this?” said Pak Helman, 28, a villager here in Riau Province, surveying the scene from his leaking wooden longboat. “I feel lost. I feel abandoned.”

    In recent years, dozens of pulp and paper companies have descended on Riau, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, snatching up generous government concessions to log and establish palm oil plantations. The results have caused villagers to feel panic.

    Only five years ago, Mr. Helman said, he earned nearly $100 a week catching shrimp. Now, he said, logging has poisoned the rivers snaking through the heart of Riau, and he is lucky to find enough shrimp to earn $5 a month.

    Responding to global demand for palm oil, which is used in cooking and cosmetics and, lately, in an increasingly popular biodiesel, companies have been claiming any land they can.

  6. “Deforestation, during which carbon stored in trees is released into the atmosphere, now accounts for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists. And Indonesia releases more carbon dioxide through deforestation than any other country…

    But it is also in Riau that a new global strategy for conserving forests in developing countries might begin. A small area of Riau’s remaining forest will become a test case if an international carbon-trading plan called REDD is adopted.

    REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is to be one of the central topics of discussion at the Bali conference. Essentially, it would involve payments by wealthy countries to developing countries for every hectare of forest they do not cut down.

    Indonesia, caught between its own financial interest in the palm oil industry and the growing international demands for conservation, has been promoting the carbon-trading plan for months.

    But there are plenty of skeptics, who doubt it will be possible to measure just how much carbon is being conserved — and who question whether the lands involved can be protected from illegal logging and corruption. “

  7. You know, you can re-arrange the letters in “Climate Change Crisis” to write:

    “Rich magicians select.”

  8. Biofuel land issues are nothing new. In the 1890s, roughly one quarter of British and American cropland had been set aside to grow grain to feed horses, of which most worked on farms.

  9. Someone should take the leaders of states pushing biofuel policies on a helicopter ride around some of these areas.

    Seeing it with your own eyes does seem to have a psychological effect on people.

  10. Someone should take the leaders of states pushing biofuel policies on a helicopter ride around some of these areas.


    Seeing it with your own eyes does seem to have a psychological effect on people.


  11. Another bit of craziness:

    The Indonesian government spends more each year subsidizing gasoline than on health and education combined.

  12. A proposed European Commission ban on biofuels deemed environmentally unfit is likely to have a global impact on a type of renewable energy once touted as key to weaning economies from oil and curbing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

    The proposal — which could affect how palm oil biofuel is produced in Southeast Asia or how corn ethanol is made in the United States — was unveiled last month as part of the European Union’s ambitious plan to fight climate change. The plan forces member states to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent while making sure biofuels make up at least 10 percent of transportation fuels by 2020.

    To meet renewable energy targets and be eligible for subsidies, biofuels used in Europe must emit at least 35 percent less carbon dioxide compared to oil and must not be produced in areas currently covered by forests, nature preserves, wetlands or highly biodiverse grasslands.

    Biofuels that fail to meet the standards won’t be allowed on the European market. Those that do will be rewarded with a premium, with binding targets meant to offer certainty to investors who will know they can sell environmentally sustainable biofuels at a higher price. Producers will have to prove to member states that they meet the standards, and their claims will be independently audited. The commission also pledged to designate sustainability requirements for biomass by the end of 2010.

    “While biofuels are the only viable alternative transport fuel for the foreseeable future, at least until hydrogen becomes competitive, their growth requires criteria to be set for the environmental sustainability of biofuels,” Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said last month in a speech at Lehman Brothers in London. “I think our focus should be firmly on only sustainable biofuels, that is to say only those which produce a substantial CO2 saving compared to the oil that would be consumed instead.

    “I feel confident that the outcome will provide the most comprehensive and sustainable system anywhere in the world for the certification of biofuels and for domestic and imported biofuels alike,” he added. “We will continue to promote the rapid development of second generation biofuels. This is critical to attaining public confidence that the environmental benefits of using biofuels outweigh any possible disadvantages.”

    Europe has encouraged the production of biofuels since 2003, when the European Parliament set a biofuels target of 5.75 percent of all transportation fuel on the market by the end of 2010, with 2 percent to be reached by 2005.

    But this interim target hasn’t been achieved, with biofuels counting for 1 percent of transport fuel in 2005. The European Commission has concluded the 2010 target will also be missed, with biofuels reaching 4.2 percent of transport fuels by then.

  13. Renewable Fuels Are the Cure for Our Addiction to Oil.”

    Unfortunately not. “Renewable fuels” sound great in theory, and agricultural lobbyists have persuaded European countries and the United States to enact remarkably ambitious biofuels mandates to promote farm-grown alternatives to gasoline. But so far in the real world, the cures — mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe — have been significantly worse than the disease.

    Researchers used to agree that farm-grown fuels would cut emissions because they all made a shockingly basic error. They gave fuel crops credit for soaking up carbon while growing, but it never occurred to them that fuel crops might displace vegetation that soaked up even more carbon. It was as if they assumed that biofuels would only be grown in parking lots. Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case; Indonesia, for example, destroyed so many of its lush forests and peat lands to grow palm oil for the European biodiesel market that it ranks third rather than 21st among the world’s top carbon emitters.

    In 2007, researchers finally began accounting for deforestation and other land-use changes created by biofuels. One study found that it would take more than 400 years of biodiesel use to “pay back” the carbon emitted by directly clearing peat for palm oil. Indirect damage can be equally devastating because on a hungry planet, food crops that get diverted to fuel usually end up getting replaced somewhere. For example, ethanol profits are prompting U.S. soybean farmers to switch to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures to pick up the slack and Brazilian ranchers are invading the Amazon rain forest, which is why another study pegged corn ethanol’s payback period at 167 years. It’s simple economics: The mandates increase demand for grain, which boosts prices, which makes it lucrative to ravage the wilderness.

  14. Brazil eyes Amazon sugar cane ban

    The Brazilian government has unveiled plans to ban sugar cane plantations in environmentally sensitive areas.

    The proposal, which must be passed by Congress, comes amid concerns that Brazil’s developing biofuels industry is increasing Amazon deforestation.

    Environment Minister Carlos Minc said the measures would mean ethanol made from sugar cane would be “100% green”.

    The government agenda is becoming more environmentally friendly ahead of the 2010 presidential poll, analysts say.

    The plans unveiled by Mr Minc would limit sugar cane plantations to 7.5% of Brazilian territory or 64m hectares, and prevent the clearing of new land for the crop.

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