Indonesia — The benefits of biofuels derived from palm oil have once again been brought into question following a new report that says the reduced emissions from burning the fuel are far outweighed by the clearing of peatland forests to grow the crop.
The report from the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) focuses on three crops commonly used for biofuels oil palms, soybeans and jatropha in 12 sites around the world, including three in Indonesia.
It found that for palm oil in particular, the carbon debt, or net amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of using the crop as a biofuel, was the highest at 472.8 to 1,743.7 tons of CO2 per hectare.
The report attributed this to the fact that most of the area expansion came at the cost of dense natural forest.
The highest debt was associated with plantation on peatland, it said.
Louis Verchot, a Cifor researcher and co-author of the report, titled Implications of Biodiesel-Induced Land-Use Changes for CO2 Emissions: Case Studies in Tropical America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, said palm oil-based biofuels that required the clearing of natural forest would never bring about a net emissions reduction.
The study also highlights the importance of proper spatial planning and awareness that all efforts conceived to be environmentally friendly can have unintended consequences, he said.
It also found that using biofuel from oil palms planted in peatlands required the longest period of time to repay the carbon debt, ranging from 206 to 220 years.
By contrast, biofuels from soybeans grown in Brazil could repay their carbon debt in just 30 years, the report said.
Verchot said that although public demand for biofuels was increasing as a result of greater awareness of the need to slow climate change, crop-based fuels were not the way to go.
These fuels have come under much criticism because of the clearing of land for plantations that results in deforestation, negative social impacts on local populations, threats to food security and increased carbon emissions as a result of land use changes, he said.
The report, published in a special issue of the journal Ecology and Society, concluded that the outcomes raise serious questions about the sustainability of biofuel production.
Laura German, a Cifor scientist and lead editor of the journals special issue, said there needed to be a rethink of how the biofuel industry functioned.
This paper shows that we cannot simply assume benefits for rural livelihoods and mitigation of climate change [from biofuel use], and suggests there needs to be more proactive efforts from both producer and consumer country governments, industry and civil society to steer the sector in a more sustainable and equitable direction, she said.