Do first generation biofuels spell doom for tropical rainforests, global climate, world’s poor?

“If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks,” warned Holly Gibbs of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

Frankly, this is not news. Scientists and economists have been in agreement about the threat that fuel crops pose to not only global food prices, but also deforestation rates in the tropics. Gibb’s findings are based on a systematic analysis of detailed satellite images collected between 1980 and 2000, which shows that cropland converted to soybean cultivation in Brazil has grown at an average rate of 15% per year since 1990, and that oil palm plantations in Indonesia have multiplied by a factor of six since 1990.

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The problems with first generation biofuels (those that are made from agricultural crops like corn, cane, or soy) are manifold.

Besides the accelerated destruction of pristine habitats and ecosystems and resulting extinctions across the tropics, the destruction of these forests also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide. From Science Daily:

Indeed, tropical forests are the world’s most efficient storehouses for carbon, harboring more than 340 billion tons, according to Gibbs’ research. This is equivalent to more than 40 years worth of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Gibbs’ previous findings asserted that the carbon debt incurred from cutting down a tropical forest could take several centuries or even millennia to repay through carbon savings produced from the resultant biofuels.

No need for math to understand this phenomenon — this fact can be simply visualized. Just think about the amount of biomass on an acre of Amazonian rainforest: 100-foot tree trunks, branches, leaves, and underbrush. That’s all carbon, and it all goes into the atmosphere when it is burned down (which has been the way farmers across the world have cleared land for millennia). Now compare that to the biomass of a few 7-foot high corn stalks or soybean plants when they are planted on that same acre, keeping in mind that a lot of that carbon is destined for a gas tank half way across the world.

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An Oxfam briefing paper concluded that by 2020, the EU’s renewable fuel mandates could induce 46 to 68 times more emissions from deforestation in Indonesia than it would save. Science magazine puts that number between 17 and 420 times more carbon that would be released due to induced deforestation on a global scale than would be saved due to displacement of fossil fuels.

Its tempting to think that growing biofuels on already degraded lands might be a workable compromise.

“On the other hand, planting biofuel croplands on degraded land — land that has been previously cultivated but is now providing very low productivity due to salinity, soil erosion, nutrient leaching, etc. — could have an overall positive environmental impact,” Gibbs said.

But even if grown on previously degraded land, there are still plenty of intelligent scientists who have concluded that they have a negative carbon balance.

This is to say nothing of the deleterious effects of first generation biofuel production on global food prices, which have been documented by some pretty bright economists.

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Last year in the U.S., so many corn-to-ethanol plants were built so quickly that the price of a bushel of corn tripled to $6. Not only did this help cause food prices to go up across the board (because grain is a primary input in the production of other foods, such as meat), but the price spike meant that operating these brand new corn-to-ethanol plants became unprofitable. This of course was concurrent with last year’s record high oil prices. As Joe put it a while back, “If you can’t make money with oil at $100 a barrel, you are not much of an alternative fuel.”

All in all, the World Bank estimated that the price of food had increased by 83 per cent between 2005 and 2008, that 100 million people have fallen into poverty as a result, and that 30% of that increase was a direct result of increased demand for biofuels. Oxfam pointed out that this cost poor countries nearly $100 billion in increased food bills over the same period — not a insignificant sum when people in your country are living on $1 a day.

Needless to say, this has caused some unrest among the poor, and food riots were reported in 14 countries last year, from Malaysia to Morocco to Mexico.

Finally, lets not forget about the other harmful environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, such as river and ocean eutrification leading to dead zones the size of New Jersey where no fish or sea life can survive.

While there are clearly some pretty insurmountable hurdles preventing first generation biofuels from solving our climate problems (not to mention the slew of other problems they would simultaneously create), I still have high hopes for second and third gen biofuels [but see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?].

Micro-algal biodiesel is an interesting option (unfortunately you’ll have to pay for that one), as is the prospect of redirecting more of our organic waste streams toward re-processesing as fuel (that one is free).

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In end, these are all really just stop-gap measures until we can get batteries efficient and light enough to take solar and wind power and use it to run everything. That technology is poised to come sooner rather than later (see “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution”).

— Sean P.