Saturday, March 10, 2007

Biofuels: Killing The Forests To Save The Earth

Indonesia's Biofuel Expansion on Rainforest Peatlands
to Accelerate Climate Change

Indonesia’s rainforests contain 60% of all the tropical peat in the world. Peatland rainforests are wet, swampy rainforests that when drained and cleared, their peat filled soils become highly susceptible to long burning, carbon and methane rich fires. Such rainforests on peat soils are one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and play a vital role in helping to regulate the global climate. They are also very rich in biodiversity and a refuge for species like orang-utans, since most of the non-peat lowland forests have already been cleared.

Rainforest peatlands are being destroyed fast; primarily by palm oil, timber, and paper and pulp companies. The Indonesian government has endorsed a massive biofuel program which foresees an increase in oil palm plantations from currently just over 6 million hectares to eventually over 26 million hectares. 5.25 million hectares have just been allocated for biofuel production, including one million hectares to PT SMART, one of the companies which was involved in agreements for a mega-plantation in the part of Kalimantan known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’ which has been halted for the time being, but is likely to reemerge at some point in some guise or other.

Indonesia's biofuel expansion spurred on largely by the European market is likely to be the death-knoll for most of Indonesia’s remaining rainforests and peatlands. Far from reducing climate change emissions, it will rapidly release up to 50 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of over 6 years of global fossil fuel emissions and could well make the generally accepted 2 degree C of warming that is considered "dangerous" unavoidable. This surge of carbon originating in cleared peatland rainforests alone could well take the planet to beyond the climate tipping point, releasing major feedbacks which worsen global heating such as large-scale methane release from permafrost and ocean clathrates, and causing the rapid break-up of the ice shelves and unstoppable mass extinctions.

Already, Indonesia’s carbon emissions from peat drainage and fires put the country in third place for CO2 emissions worldwide. A recent study has found that one ton of biodiesel made from palm oil grown on Southeast Asia’s peatlands is linked to the emission of 10-30 tons of carbon dioxide. Shockingly, this is 2-8 times as much carbon released as in production of a ton of fossil fuel diesel. Far from helping with development, monoculture plantations have been linked to increased rural poverty and hundreds of conflicts over land rights.