Biofuel Plantations on Tropical Forestlands Are Bad for the Climate and Biodiversity, Study Finds

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Lee Poston lee.poston@wwfus.org 202-778-9536

World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Biofuel Plantations on Tropical Forestlands Are Bad for the Climate and Biodiversity, Study Finds

WASHINGTON - Keeping tropical rain forests intact is a better way to combat
climate change than replacing them with biofuel plantations, a study in
the journal Conservation Biology finds.

The study reveals
that it would take at least 75 years for the carbon emissions saved
through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost through
forest conversion. And if the original habitat was carbon-rich
peatland, the carbon balance would take more than 600 years.  On the
other hand, planting biofuels on degraded Imperata grasslands instead of tropical rain forests would lead to a net removal of carbon in 10 years, the authors found. 

"Biofuels
are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace
tropical rain forests," said co-author Dr. Neil Burgess of World
Wildlife Fund. "In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of
the world's most efficient carbon storage tools - intact tropical rain
forests."

The study is the most comprehensive analysis of the
impact of oil palm plantations in tropical forests on climate and
biodiversity. It was undertaken by an international research team of
botanists, ecologists and engineers from seven nations.

"Our
analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to
the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical
forestlands," said lead author Finn Danielsen of Denmark's Nordic
Agency for Development and Ecology (NORDECO). "Until then, we will be
releasing carbon into the atmosphere by cutting tropical rain forests,
in addition to losing valuable plant and animal species. It's even
worse on peatlands, which contain so much carbon that it would be 600
years before we see any benefits whatsoever."  

Biofuels have
been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels,
one of the major contributors to global warming. One such biofuel, palm
oil, covers millions of acres in Southeast Asia, where it has directly
or indirectly replaced tropical rain forests, resulting in loss of
habitats for species such as rhinos and orangutans and the loss of
carbon stored in trees and peatlands.

The authors call for the development of common global standards for sustainable production of biofuels.

"Subsidies
to purchase tropical biofuels are given by countries in Europe and
North America supposedly to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from
transport" said Danielsen.  "While these countries strive to meet their
obligations under one international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, they
encourage others to increase their emissions as well as breach their
obligations under another agreement, the Convention on Biological
Diversity."

"Comparing the flora of the rain forest with that of
oil palm plantations shows the devastating effect of forest conversion
on biodiversity. Major plant groups that thrive in natural rain forest,
such as trees, lianas, orchids and native palms, are completely
absent.  The plants that do grow abundantly in plantations are mostly
common fern species that like sunshine. Forest plants need shady and
undisturbed habitat to survive" said botanist Hendrien Beukema of
University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

For fauna, only one
in six forest species can survive in plantations, the study finds. Most
of these are common and widespread species.

"Conserving the
existing forests is not only good for the climate as the emissions of
greenhouse gases are reduced but also generates additional benefits,
such as biodiversity protection" said Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso of the
Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry (CIFOR). Tropical
forests contain more than half of the Earth's terrestrial species and
Southeast Asia's forests are among the richest in species. They also
store around 46 percent of the world's living terrestrial carbon and 25
percent of total net global carbon emissions may stem from
deforestation.

"It's a huge contradiction to clear tropical rain
forests to grow crops for so-called ‘environmentally friendly' fuels,"
said co-author Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Center,
Malaysia. "This is not only an issue in South East Asia - in Latin
America forests are being cleared for soy production which is even less
efficient at biofuel production compared to oil palm. Reducing
deforestation is a much more effective way for countries to reduce
climate change while also meeting their obligations to protect
biodiversity."

"Any biofuel plantations in tropical forest
regions should be considered only in former forest land which has
already been severely degraded to support only grassy vegetation,"
Parish added. "Care is further needed to prevent such plantations from
stimulating further forest degradation in adjacent areas."

Want to learn more about the issues affecting climate change? View breaking news and reports from the UN Climate Change Conference

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The paper was authored by:

Finn Danielsen 
(NORDECO, Denmark), Hendrien Beukema (University of Groningen,
Netherlands), Neil D. Burgess (World Wildlife Fund US and University of
Cambridge), Faizal Parish (Global Environment Centre, Malaysia),
Carsten A. Brühl (University Koblenz-Landau, Germany), Paul F. Donald
(RSPB, UK), Daniel Murdiyarso (CIFOR, Indonesia) Ben Phalan (University
of Cambridge), Lucas Reijnders (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands),
Matthew Struebig (Queen Mary University of London, UK), and Emily
Fitzherbert (Zoological Society of London and University of East
Anglia, UK).

A copy of the paper, "Biofuel Plantations on
Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate," and high
resolution images of palm oil plantations are available on request.

 

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