Biofuels Shift Could Trigger Land-Use Changes

By Published On: March 9, 2007

A massive shift to biofuels in California has the potential to cause major changes in land use both domestically and internationally, energy analysts warned March 2. “Land-use impacts are huge,” said Stefan Unnasch, TIAX consultant. Addressing energy and air regulators at a joint meeting of the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board, he cautioned state officials against promoting biofuels if it requires cutting down distant forests to grow the crops needed to produce them, such as corn, soybeans, oil palms, and sugar cane. Critics say that changing agricultural land use for biofuels in that manner could exacerbate global warming. California is the nation’s number-one automotive and gasoline market, fueling increasing demand for petroleum. To counter growing oil dependence, state law requires the Energy Commission and air board to outline, by this summer, a plan to increase the share of alternative fuels used for transportation from 6 percent today to 20 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the governor’s low-carbon-fuels executive order requires the air board to work with other agencies to cut the carbon content of motor vehicle fuel in California by 10 percent by 2020 (Circuit, Jan. 12, 2007). Energy commissioner Jim Boyd voiced hope that California would be able to pursue biofuels without relying on “energy crops.” He said that if cellulosic ethanol production is perfected, the state might be able to meet its alternative-fuel and low-carbon-fuel goals using agricultural and urban green waste instead of corn, soy, or other crops as biofuel feedstocks. Meanwhile, Boyd said that the agencies would have to base decisions on alternative low-carbon fuels on the limited state of the art and change its policies as new information and technology develop. In the U.S., major land-use impacts from biofuels production could include both changes in the crops farmers grow and planting more corn for ethanol on marginal lands prone to erosion and short on water. Such changes in U.S. agriculture already are rippling into international food markets and eventually could trigger changes in land use abroad as nations respond to changing U.S. agricultural product exports and imports. If biofuel makers turn to foreign-grown feedstocks, a burgeoning social and environmental justice movement is warning, it could cause massive displacement of existing agriculture and rain forests in the developing countries, often referred to as the “global South.” “People, especially in the global South, are looking at biofuels as a false solution,” Orin Langelle, Global Justice Ecology Project codirector, told Circuit. “I feel that large-scale biofuel production will be a disaster in many ways.” The project joined with other groups to warn a United Nations conference late last year that large-scale biofuel production threatens environmental problems and increasing social and economic inequality in the global South as large feedstock plantations are established. Dave Rice, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory environmental scientist, told state regulators that Indonesia biofuel interests are burning down jungles to plant oil palms to provide feedstock for biodiesel. The Netherlands has been a “notorious” importer of palm oil grown to produce biodiesel where forest once stood, Kate Horner, Bluewater Network program associate, added. She urged inclusion of “sustainability indexes” in the upcoming alternative-fuels report and low-carbon-fuel standard. The indexes would account for how fuels may promote deforestation or increased use of fertilizer and toxic pesticides to grow biofuel feedstock crops, she explained. On January 31, 2004, organizations joined in an “open letter” calling on the European Union to abandon targets for biofuel use in Europe in favor of reducing overall energy use and improving energy efficiency. The European Union has set a goal of burning 5.75 percent biofuels for transportation by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020. In their letter to the European Union, the groups wrote, “Although presented as an opportunity for Southern economies, evidence suggests monoculture crops for biofuel such as oil palm, soya, sugar cane and maize lead to increased destruction of biodiversity and rural livelihoods and further erosion of food security, with serious impacts on water, soil, and regional climate patterns.”

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