Sunday, April 08, 2007

Deforestation Diesel

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 there an entire 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 besides that 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.

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 use one solution because there's too many of us. 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 we draw power. 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.

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