Fuel for Thought: Biofuels and Conservation

Young man carrying oil palm fruit in Liberia.

Young man carrying oil palm fruit in Liberia.

As high-level government officials and conservation leaders join national delegations this week in Nagoya, Japan for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 10th Conference of the Parties, much of the discussion is centered on solutions like habitat protection, reduction of threats to endangered species, and protected areas. In the same set of rooms, though, a surprising topic will also be discussed: biofuels.

What does the ethanol blend at your gas station’s fuel pump or the biodiesel mix powering your generator have to do with biodiversity? A lot, it turns out. Biofuels are, after all, liquid fuels made from living or recently living biological organisms such as plants. Those plants, also called feedstocks, were grown somewhere. And in many cases, the feedstocks were produced in areas that some of the world’s most threatened species call home.

Palm oil—which is used for biodiesel as well as cosmetics and food products—is grown in the tropics; Indonesia and Malaysia are currently the largest producers. Oil palm—the tree from which the oily fruits come—now covers extensive landscapes, with more land being converted every day to meet growing demand. For local governments and communities, the oil palms represent employment, viable incomes, foreign investment and development potential. But in many places the palms have replaced the native forest that once was once home to Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and orangutans (Pongo sp.)—some of the world’s most endangered species.

In Brazil, production of sugarcane is expanding in response to a growing global demand for ethanol as well as sugar. Sugarcane has fueled Brazilian economic growth for centuries; the nation’s pioneering expertise in the ethanol industry is now being shared with countries around the world, enhancing Brazil’s status as a forerunner in renewable energy. The government has passed laws to keep sugarcane from being planted in some of the most environmentally-sensitive areas. But expansion is still affecting the headwaters of streams that feed the Pantanal, one of the world’s largest wetlands. And expansion of sugarcane into pasture pushes cattle production towards the agricultural frontier, affecting some of the most biodiversity-rich forests in the world.

These are just two examples. Throughout the world, governments, communities and conservationists are struggling with how to balance the very real benefits biofuels can bring—if done right—with the risks they represent when not produced responsibly. Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Suriname, Malaysia, India, Liberia, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Spain, the United States…the list of countries trying to balance biodiversity conservation with biofuel production stretches on and on.

Christine Dragisic

As the CBD meeting continues in Nagoya this week, stakeholders will try to “promote the positive and minimize the negative impacts of the production and use of biofuels on biodiversity.” They will debate the role the CBD can play, the responsibilities of governments, and the tools and incentives that must be developed. They will insert brackets and move semicolons, parse the meaning of individual words, craft paragraphs of contorted text—all in the hope that at the end of October there will be a framework of recommendations to ensure the fuels that could drive our global growth will not harm the biodiversity we all depend on. CI will be there to support this crucial discussion—wish us luck.

Christine Dragisic in the senior manager for agriculture, biofuels and forestry in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB).

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