Time Magazine has a very good article “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald, on the terrifying connection between biofuels and the viability of the Amazon (and other tropical forests for that matter).
A Texan sets the tone:
“It gives me goose bumps,” says Carter, who founded a nonprofit to promote sustainable ranching on the Amazon frontier. “It’s like witnessing a rape.”
The perpetrator of this violence? The article answers:
This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.
The Amazon was once protected for it’s biodiversity, but now it’s survival is paramount for one thing: it’s ability to naturally sequester carbon. And the dynamic is explained thusly:
Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.
Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.
Just want to add this graph to underline the connection to the power of global commodity markets, which appears to have lifted the Amazon’s destruction to a higher level of magnitude.
More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it’s subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets. “The price of soybeans goes up,” laments Sandro Menezes, a biologist with Conservation International in Brazil, “and the forest comes down.”
Translating into a brutal short-term local logic:
The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact. Carter, who fell in love with the region after marrying a Brazilian and taking over her father’s ranch, says the rate of deforestation closely tracks commodity prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. “It’s just exponential right now because the economics are so good,” he says. “Everything tillable or grazeable is gouged out and cleared.”
Which brings us to the global warming phrase dejour, “tipping point”.
This destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display in Brazil, where a Rhode Island–size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007 and even more was degraded by fire. Some scientists believe fires are now altering the local microclimate and could eventually reduce the Amazon to a savanna or even a desert. “It’s approaching a tipping point,” says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center.
Dan Nepstad is not just any talking head scientist – he’s one of a handful of the world’s top earth scientists specializing in global warming dynamics. His recent report “Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point” describes a terrifying razors edge the Amazon finds itself on.
If the Amazon tips, it goes from a massive carbon sink to a massive carbon emitter – quite likely leaving much more than itself for dead.
The take away on biofuels is a very cautionary note:
The lesson behind the math is that on a warming planet, land is an incredibly precious commodity, and every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can’t be used to generate the food needed to feed us or the carbon storage needed to save us. Searchinger acknowledges that biofuels can be a godsend if they don’t use arable land. Possible feedstocks include municipal trash, agricultural waste, algae and even carbon dioxide, although none of the technologies are yet economical on a large scale. Tilman even holds out hope for fuel crops–he’s been experimenting with Midwestern prairie grasses–as long as they’re grown on “degraded lands” that can no longer support food crops or cattle.