Forests paying the price for
22 November 2005
NewScientist.com news service
THE drive for "green energy"
in the developed world is having the perverse effect of encouraging the
destruction of tropical rainforests. From the orang-utan reserves of Borneo to
the Brazilian Amazon, virgin forest is being razed to grow palm oil and
soybeans to fuel cars and power stations in Europe and North America. And
surging prices are likely to accelerate the destruction.
The rush to make energy from vegetable oils is being driven in part by
European Union laws requiring conventional fuels to be blended with biofuels,
and by subsidies equivalent to 20 pence a litre. Last week, the British
government announced a target for biofuels to make up 5 per cent of transport
fuels by 2010. The aim is to help meet Kyoto protocol targets for reducing
Rising demand for green energy has led to a surge in the international price
of palm oil, with potentially damaging consequences. "The expansion of
palm oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction in
south-east Asia. It is one of the most environmentally damaging commodities on
the planet," says Simon Counsell, director of the UK-based Rainforest
Foundation. "Once again it appears we are trying to solve our
environmental problems by dumping them in developing countries, where they
have devastating effects on local people."
The main alternative to palm oil is soybean oil. But soya is the largest
single cause of rainforest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon. Supporters of
biofuels argue that they can be "carbon neutral" because the CO2
released from burning them is taken up again by the next crop. Interest is
greatest for diesel engines, which can run unmodified on vegetable oil, and in
Germany bio-diesel production has doubled since 2003. There are also plans for
burning palm oil in power stations.
Once again we are trying to solve our environmental problems by dumping them
on developing countries
Europe's small market in biofuels was dominated by home-grown rapeseed (canola)
oil. But surging demand from the food market has raised the price of rapeseed
oil too. This has led fuel manufacturers to opt for palm and soya oil instead.
Palm oil prices jumped 10 per cent in September alone, and are predicted to
rise 20 per cent next year, while global demand for biofuels is now rising at
25 per cent a year.
Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth UK, which backs biofuels, says: "We
need to ensure that the crops used to make the fuel have been grown in a
sustainable way or we will have rainforests cleared for palm oil plantations
to make bio-diesel."
From issue 2526 of New Scientist
magazine, 22 November 2005, page 19
fuel earns its stripes in 24-hour endurance test 19
planes promise greener air travel 26
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