10 April 2007

Biofuels and the destruction of the rain forest

Fidel Castro, apparently not dead yet by a long shot, has been ranting of late about agricultural land being used for the production of ethanol rather than for food. Not the first to suggest that human beings will ultimately starve themselves in order to feed their machines, he claims that billions could face starvation as productive land in poor countries is taken over to produce fuel for rich countries. "By offering financing to poor countries to produce ethanol from corn or any other kind of food," he states, "no tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change."

He may or not be right about the corn, but the old revolutionary certainly has a point about the trees. Predictions are that within 15 years, 98% of the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone, taking with them some of the world's most important wildlife species, largely for palm oil plantations to produce biofuel.

Over 80% of the world's palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, up until recently for food. With the European Union aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, to be achieved partly by requiring that 10% of vehicles use biofuels, a huge surge in palm oil demand for use as energy is being created. The rain forests will pay the price.

Ironically, much of it is a scam. Lumber companies, who have already stripped much of the region's forests, are accused of taking out palm oil leases just so they can harvest the timber.

And if that isn't irony enough, clearing the forests may in itself send vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. Up to half the new plantation area will be created from peat-land which contains large amounts of carbon. As the land is drained, the peat dries and releases the carbon. Even worse, it is often burned, adding even more CO2 to the massive forest fires that plague south-east Asia.

The ultimate irony, of course, lies in destroying the Earth in order to save it.

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