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Making the Links Between Biofuels and Forests

Dr. Fred Stolle is the Program Manager for Forest Landscapes in Southeast Asia, and the Regional Manager for the Indonesia Global Forest Watch project. His interview on biofuels consumption aired the week of April 27th, 2007 on National Public Radio's Living on Earth.

Q: Why is there hesitation to rapidly increase use of biofuels as an alternative to coal?

In Europe, and this situation is similar to the United States, it would generally take around 3 million acres of biofuel plantations to reduce fuel consumption by 1 percent. It is crucial that countries plan ahead to find which land is available for biofuels cultivation.

Q: Western countries in Europe and North America don't necessarily have the cropland to support massive amounts of production of biofuels, so where would they come from?

They would most likely come from Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Brazil is the world's largest sugar cane producer and exporter and is responsible for 45 percent of the global ethanol supply. In 2005, Brazil produced 3.8 billion gallons of ethanol and exported 528 million gallons. Palm oil is the world's second most consumed edible oil, following soy. It is used in a wide variety of products -- from food and beverages to cosmetics and cleaning products -- and is very suitable to convert to biodiesel. Palm oil is widely cultivated in tropical Asia, Africa and South America, but Malaysia and Indonesia produce around 90 percent of the palm oil that enters world trade.

Q: Is all of this biofuels production a good thing?

It could be. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia could become the OPEC countries of the future and it could be very good for their economies and, if done the right way, reduce carbon emissions and thus mitigate climate change. However, if done the wrong way, it can have the opposite effects, such as more carbon emissions contributing to climate change, and devastating effects on the environment leading to deforestation affecting species and biological functions.

Q: How do we get biofuels that benefit countries and don't cause destructive deforestation?

For one, there needs to be a certification process. Consumers need to be able to see if the biofuels they purchase are sustainably produced. The bad biofuels may have to be taxed.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to certify biofuels -- the wealthy countries or the producing ones?

Both. Wealthy countries need to enable producing countries with incentives to produce good, sustainable biofuels.

Q: How do biofuels fit into climate change?

If grassland is converted to an oil palm plantation, it is beneficial. But convert a peat swamp and it will cause massive amounts of CO2, or greenhouse gasses. In Indonesia, for example, there are many peat swamps that are 30- or 40-feet deep. These are densely stored with carbon from millennia. Build a palm oil plantation there and it will be horrible for climate change.

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia

Q: Are European countries taking steps towards standards to ensure that biofuels originate from the right kind of land?

They are busy working on it, but have not implemented policies yet. They could follow the example of sustainable wood supply. There are international standards (for example, the Forest Stewardship Council) that certify wood that is harvested and produced sustainably. The same sort of standards could be done for biofuels.

Q: How would consumers ever know the source, after the crops have been through the processing facility and shipped before being sold?

It is a problem, but there are chain-of-custody systems in place for food (oil palm) and wood, which gives us a pretty good grip on this; something similar on biofuels could be implemented.

Q: Does palm oil come from palm trees?

Yes, they originated in West Africa, but were brought to Asia in the early 19th Century where they have since thrived. Oil palm trees are about 10 to 15 feet tall and have a 20-year rotation cycle.

Q: Are they producing palm oil in Africa also?

They do, but not in such quantities as Southeast Asia. This could change if there is more demand and a better infrastructure.

Q: How do you get oil out of the palm trees?

There's fruit on the top of the trees that looks like bananas. Some oil comes from the kernels inside the fruit and some comes from the meat of the fruit.

Q: Why is it good to use as fuel?

There is a very high level of energy within the palm fruit. Corn, on the other hand, has a very low energy output.

Q: What is the situation with deforestation because of biofuels in the Brazilian Amazon?

There could be indirect effects on the Amazon. Biofuels are made from sugar cane in Southern Brazil, near Sao Paulo, thousands of miles away from the Amazon. But if the production of sugar cane expands, other agricultural activities, such as cattle ranching and soybean production, could be pushed off the land and farmers could look to expand by clear cutting parts of the rainforest.

Q: Are there regulations on clear cutting and are they enforced?

Yes, there are many regulations against clear cutting, but many can't be enforced. The latest satellite imagery shows lots of clear cuts.

Q: What species could suffer because of our pursuit of alternative energy?

Other than the hundreds of tree species, the orangutan in the low-land forests of Southeast Asia are really threatened.

Q: What is the key thing that needs to be done in regards to biofuels?

Certification issues needs to be well planned. In addition, policy makers have to look at an integrated approach in order to take advantage of the biofuel economy. Issues on deforestation have to be combined with economics, trade, agricultural production, and energy policies.

For more information, please contact Dr. Stolle or Paul Mackie, WRI Senior Media Officer.

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