Deforestation Diesel

Written by Japhet

Topics: Agribusiness

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The next time you fill up your little VW Bug with biodiesel you’ll be shocked to find out that you could be contributing to the continuing deforestation of the world’s rainforests.

How? Palm, a popular species of tree from which the cheapest and easiest forms of biofuels are sourced from, is the world’s number one fruit crop, outpacing the once untouchable banana. Oil from these trees has become a fast and cheap way to produce biodiesel. The explosion in the oil palm market has resulted in massive amounts of deforestation in Africa, South America, Indonesia, Malaysia and other south pacific countries, as corporations and big-business start flocking to the oil palm market.

And this is where the irony is: while supporting a more sustainable fuel source for my automobile that will help limit the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere while I drive, I am also supporting an industry that clear-cuts huge swaths of tropical rainforest further limiting the amount of CO2 absorbed by these forests that play a vital role in slowing and stopping global climate change.

What’s interesting about this comparison (that of fighting global climate change by using biodiesel to cut vehicle CO2 emissions or by supporting the forests of tropical regions that absorb massive amounts of CO2)is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can do both.

Biodiesel can come from many different oils besides palm, including rapeseed, soybean, hemp, algae, mustard seed, flax seed, sunflower, vegetable oil waste, and canola oil. All of these are able to be made into an efficient and clean-burning biodiesel. So why is the industry being dominated by only one, the palm tree?

Well, because of all the various oils that biodiesel can be made from, oil from palm trees has one of the highest yields outside of algae and Chinese tallow. This means that from a production standpoint, oil palm is a much more efficient (and therefore lucrative) business to be in. (Why we haven’t jumped all over Chinese tallow — an invasive species in the U.S. — is beyond me).

What must be kept in mind, and in our overall strategy in dealing with emissions, is that there is no silver bullet. The world can’t all depend on one solution because first, one solution for my region may not be available to someone with the same problem in Italy. Second, any one solution that 6.3 billion people latch onto will have dramatic effects on our environment. We need a diversity of solutions. A diversity of crops with which to draw biodiesel from, a diversity of power plants including wind, solar, and geothermal from which to draw energy from. This diversity is what will sustain the ecological balance we have fallen out of on this planet. Governments can support all types of natural oils and subsidize the ones that cost more or are more difficult to produce. But we simply can’t keep thinking that there is one solution that will work for all economies and all environmental challenges that we face as a world.

We have already started converting what was once natural rainforest into monoculture farms for soy, palm oil and other agricultural fast-money crops, much like we did for beef production in the late ’80s and ’90s (and still do). From a forest ecology standpoint, it brings into question how quickly they are being killed off under the guise of seemingly natural plantations and tree farms.

3 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Kate says:

    Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia also typically involves burning peat moss to clear land after deforestation. Peat is a significant carbon sink and when burned releases massive quantities of CO2-that’s how Indonesia launched itself right in to 3rd place for carbon emissions, by some estimates. Just one more point to take in to account.

  2. wow says:

    Wow – a posting on a rainforest issue from the RAINFOREST Action Network. This is something to truly treasure. Now are you going to get active with the groups working to end deforestation biofuel or do you just do banks and coal now?

  3. Japhet says:

    Sam, its good to see you back. I was “wowed” too by the story behind this posting. As to your constant badgering over our work on coal and banks:
    - I’ve answered this challenge several times on multiple blog posts in the last 5 months and frankly, it’s getting difficult to repeatedly address a question we’ve answered ten times.
    - If the Understory continues to get the same comment from the same IP address (Wisconsin? how many rainforests can you study in Wisconsin?) it’ll be flagged as spam.

    Otherwise, we look forward to the diversity of your opinions being expressed on blog posts about whatever catches your fancy, be it banks or rainforests.

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