Biofuel plantations on tropical forestlands are bad for the climate and biodiversity

December 1, 2008

( -- Keeping tropical rain forests intact is a better way to combat climate change than replacing them with biofuel plantations, according to a new in-depth study by an international team of scientists, including Matt Struebig from Queen Mary, University of London.

Published in the journal Conservation Biology, the study reveals that it would take at least 75 years for the carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion. And if the original habitat was carbon-rich peatland, the carbon balance would take more than 600 years. On the other hand, planting biofuels on degraded Imperata grasslands instead of tropical rain forests would lead to a net removal of carbon in 10 years, the authors found.

The study is the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of oil palm plantations in tropical forests on climate and biodiversity. It was undertaken by an international research team of botanists, ecologists and engineers from seven nations. Matt Struebig, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, explained: “For fauna, only one in six forest species can survive in plantations. Plantations are frequently dominated by a few abundant species that are widespread and of low conservation concern.”

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are the two key environmental issues of our time,” added Emily Fitzherbert from the University of East Anglia. “Sourcing biofuel feedstock from crops such as palm oil simply doesn’t make environmental sense. If these crops replace tropical forests, we are removing one of the world’s most efficient carbon storage tools. And while many species can survive in even degraded forests, few can tolerate an oil palm monoculture.”

Biofuels have been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, one of the major contributors to global warming. One such biofuel, palm oil, covers millions of acres in Southeast Asia, where it has directly or indirectly replaced tropical rain forests, resulting in loss of habitats for species such as rhinos and orangutans and the loss of carbon stored in trees and peatlands.

The authors call for the development of common global standards for sustainable production of biofuels.

Provided by Queen Mary, University of London

Explore further: Study suggests carbon content of temperate forests overestimated

Related Stories

Seven case studies in carbon and climate

November 13, 2015

Every part of the mosaic of Earth's surface—ocean and land, Arctic and tropics, forest and grassland—absorbs and releases carbon in a different way. Wild-card events such as massive wildfires and drought complicate the ...

Telling the story of the world's most at-risk forests

November 13, 2015

The most recent chapter of the World Wildlife Foundation's Living Forests Report, Chapter 5: Saving Forests at Risks, identifies 11 deforestation fronts where more than 80% of global deforestation between 2010 and 2030 is ...

Recommended for you

Making 3-D imaging 1,000 times better

December 1, 2015

MIT researchers have shown that by exploiting the polarization of light—the physical phenomenon behind polarized sunglasses and most 3-D movie systems—they can increase the resolution of conventional 3-D imaging devices ...

Which came first—the sponge or the comb jelly?

December 1, 2015

Bristol study reaffirms classical view of early animal evolution. Whether sponges or comb jellies (also known as sea gooseberries) represent the oldest extant animal phylum is of crucial importance to our understanding of ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.