Sunday, January 20, 2008

EU biofuels ban: delaying the inevitable?

Last week, the New York Times reported that the European Union has proposed a draft law, prohibiting the import of biofuels made from crops grown on "certain kinds of land — including forests, wetlands or grasslands." The law appears to be aimed primarily at countries in southeast Asia and Latin America — one would guess Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia — who have much to gain by clearcutting rainforests/other woodlands and draining peatlands to set up new plantations for oil palms and sugarcane, respectively, for biodiesel and ethanol use.

The signatories to the UN's Framework Committee on Climate Change pledged last December to start pilot programs granting carbon credits to developing nations (like Indonesia) to slow deforestation. The EU's legislative move seems in sync with their pledge to adopt greener practices, combatting deforestation while trying to encourage the purchase of fuels made from other crops, domestic ones (hopefully) grown more sustainably.

In the great carbon debate, this is encouraging. Indonesian companies, in particular, have been razing forests and draining/burning peatlands in order to clear land for oil palm plantations. These pristine natural forests and peatlands are some of nature's best carbon sinks, soaking up carbon dioxide and storing it; however, all of that old, long-stored carbon is released into the atmosphere during burns, and the oil palms, while they also absorb their share of carbon, require much in the way of resources, both in massive water requirements, nitrogenous fertilizers that can run off into the water supply, and diesel fuel for agricultural equipment, which puts out its own emissions. While moving towards cleaner burning fuels, such as B20 biodiesel blends, is better emissions-wise on the consumer's end — biodiesel has a much higher energy balance, nearly 3 times that of ethanol — those fuels may cause the suppliers to do more harm in their production.

While moves such as Europe's, choosing less harmful feedstocks, are important first steps, they may prove ineffectual in the global economy. China has ramped up its importation of edible oils, including palm oil (consumption is estimated to jump 10 percent by 2010), and should biofuels take hold in China, one can only expect their appetite for edible-as-fuel oils to grow dramatically.

So the question hangs in the air: will Europe's gesture make any difference in discouraging countries such as Indonesia from continuing to clear land, to convert more rainforest or peatland for the cultivation of oil-producing crops? Will it take the successful development and adoption of even cheaper feedstocks (i.e., algae for biodiesel, cellulosic methods for ethanol) for the most oil-hungry nations to stop encouraging the destruction of carbon sinks with their wallets? And will that make a difference for developing countries, who both desire the respect of the global economy by complying with the wishes of the UNFCCC, and wish to be a bigger player in that global economy?

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