Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Biofuels not the panacea once thought

File it under unexpected consequences. Going green isn't quite so easy, as advocates of palm oil as a biofuel have discovered, to their dismay. That palm oil based biofuels emit fewer green house gases is well known. However their increasing popularity has led to palms being planted and harvested in ways that add far more greenhouse gases than would be the case if petroleum had been substituted for palm oil.
Just a few years ago, politicians and green groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the country's early and rapid adoption of "sustainable energy," achieved in part by coaxing electricity plants to use some biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia. [...]

But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare.

Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the razing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rain forest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Worse still, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peat land, which sent huge amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Factoring in these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world's third-leading producer of greenhouse gases that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, concluded a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.

"It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially went into palm oil," said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.

Biofuels, long a cornerstone of the quest for greener energy, may sometimes produce more harmful emissions than the fossil fuels they replace, scientific studies are finding.

As a result, politicians in many countries are rethinking the billions of dollars in subsidies that have indiscriminately supported the spread of all of these supposedly "eco-friendly" fuels, for use in power vehicles and factories. The 2003 European Union Biofuels Directive, which demands that all member states aim to have 5.75 percent of transportation fueled by biofuel in 2010, is now under review.

"If you make biofuels properly, you will reduce greenhouse emissions," said Peder Jensen, of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. "But that depends very much on the types of plants and how they're grown and processed. You can end up with a 90 percent reduction compared to fossil fuels — or a 20 percent increase."

"Its important to take a life cycle view," he said, and not to "just see what the effects are here in Europe." [...]

On the surface, the environmental equation that supports biofuels is simple: Since they are derived from plants, biofuels absorb carbon while they are grown and release it when they are burned. In theory that neutralizes their emissions.

But the industry was promoted long before there was adequate research, said Reanne Creyghton, who runs Friends of the Earth's anti-palm oil campaign in the Netherlands. "Palm oil was advertised as green energy, but there was no research about whether it was really sustainable." [...]
Moreover, the Europe driven demand for palm oil pressured local prices upward, to the extent that many families were unable to buy it for their food needs.
Oil needed by poor people for food was becoming too expensive for them. "We have a problem satisfying the Netherlands' energy needs with someone else's food resources," said Creyghton of Friends of the Earth. [...]
Those Indonesian fires that are periodically in the news? Palm oil cultivation seems at least partly to blame.
In recent years Indonesia has been plagued by polluting wildfires so intense that they send thick clouds of smoke over much of Asia. [...]
Yet another case of something working well in theory, but not in practice. The reckless production of palm oil problem can be solved, but probably at costs that prevent the wide scale adoption of palm oil.