Southeast Asia — Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groupsin the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption ofsustainable energy, achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to usebiofuel in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.
Spurred by government subsidies, energy companies became so enthusiastic thatthey designed generators that ran exclusively on the oil, which in theory wouldbe cleaner than fossil fuels like coal because it is derived from plants. Butlast year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesiaand Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmentalnightmare.
Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tractsof Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there.Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations wasoften created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts ofcarbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the worldsthird-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe areresponsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China,according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.
It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially wentinto palm oil, said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.The production of biofuels, long a cornerstone of the quest for greener energy,may sometimes create more harmful emissions than fossil fuels, scientificstudies are finding.
As a result, politicians in many countries are rethinking the billions ofdollars in subsidies that have indiscriminately supported the spread of all ofthese supposedly eco-friendly fuels for vehicles and factories. The 2003European Union Biofuels Directive, which demands that all member states aim to have 5.75 percent of transportation run by biofuel in 2010, is now underreview.
If you make biofuels properly, you will reduce greenhouse emissions, saidPeder Jensen, of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. But thatdepends very much on the types of plants and how theyre grown and processed.You can end up with a 90 percent reduction compared to fossil fuels or a 20 percent increase.
He added, Its important to take a life-cycle view, and not to justsee what the effects are here in Europe. In the Netherlands, the data fromIndonesia has provoked soul-searching, and helped prompt the government tosuspend palm oil subsidies. The Netherlands, a leader in green energy, is nowleading the effort to distinguish which biofuels are truly environmentally sound.
The government, environmental groups and some of the Netherlands greenenergy companies are trying to develop programs to trace the origins ofimported palm oil, to certify which operations produce the oil in a responsiblemanner.
Krista van Velzen, a Member of Parliament, said the Netherlands should paycompensation to Indonesia for the damage that palm oil has caused. We cantonly think: does it pollute the Netherlands?
In the United States and Brazil most biofuel is ethanol (made from corn in theUnited States and sugar in Brazil), used to power vehicles made to run ongasoline. In Europe it is mostly local rapeseed and sunflower oil, used to makediesel fuel.
In a small number of instances, plant oil is used in place of diesel fuel,without further refinement. But as many European countries push for more greenenergy, they are increasingly importing plant oils from the tropics, since thereis simply not enough plant matter for fuel production at home.
On the surface, the environmental equation that supports biofuels is simple:Since they are derived from plants, biofuels absorb carbon while they are grownand release it when they are burned. In theory that neutralizes their emissions.But the industry was promoted long before there was adequate research, saidReanne Creyghton, who runs Friends of the Earths campaign against palm oilhere.
Biofuelswatch, an environment group in Britain, now says that biofuels shouldnot automatically be classed as renewable energy. It supports a moratorium onsubsidies until more research can determine whether various biofuels indifferent regions are produced in a nonpolluting manner.
Beyond that, the group suggests that all emissions arising from the productionof a biofuel be counted as emissions in the country where thefuel is actuallyused, providing a clearer accounting of environmental costs. The demand for palmoil in Europe has soared in the last two decades, first for use in food andcosmetics, and more recently for fuel. This versatile and cheap oil is used inabout 10 percent of supermarket products, from chocolate to toothpaste,accounting for 21 percent of the global market for edible oils.
Palm oil produces the most energy of all vegetable oils for each unit of volumewhen burned. In much of Europe it is used as a substitute for diesel fuel,though in the Netherlands, the government has encouraged its use for electricity.Supported by hundreds of millions of euros in national subsidies, the Netherlands rapidly became the leading importer of palm oil in Europe, taking in1.7 million tons last year, nearly double the previous year.
The increasing demand has created damage far away. Friends of the Earth estimatethat 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia from 1985 to 2000 was caused bynew palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, the amount of land devoted to palm oilhas increased 118 percent in the last eight years.
In December, scientists from Wetlands International released their calculationsabout the global emissions caused by palm farming on peatland. Peat is anorganic sponge that stores huge amounts of carbon, helping balance globalemissions. Peatland is 90 percent water. But when it is drained, the WetlandsInternational scientists say, the stored carbon gases are released into theatmosphere.
To makes matters worse, once dried, peatland is often burned to clear ground forplantations. The Dutch study estimated that the draining of peatland inIndonesia releases 660 million ton of carbon a year into the atmosphere and thatfires contributed 1.5 billion tons annually.
The total is equivalent to 8 percent of all global emissions caused annually byburning fossil fuels, the researchers said. These emissions generated by peatdrainage in Indonesia were not counted before, said Mr. Kaat. It was atotally ignored problem. For the moment Wetlands is backing the certificationsystem for palm oil imports.
But some environmental groups say palm oil cannot be produced sustainably atreasonable prices. They say palm oil is now cheap because of poor environmentalpractices and labor abuses.
Yes, there have been bad examples in the palm oil industry, said ArjenBrinkman, a company official at Biox, a young company that plans to build threepalm oil electrical plants in Holland, using oil from palms grown on its ownplantations in a manner that it says is responsible. But it is now clear,he said, that to serve Europes markets for biofuel and bioenergy; you willhave to prove that you produce it sustainably that you are producing less,not more CO2.