Biofuels When Renewable Energy Is Bad For The Environment

Sometimes biofuels are bad for the environment, which is why the German parliament needs to be careful with a proposed new law that encourages their use.

Workers load palm oil fruits onto a truck in Malaysia.

Workers load palm oil fruits onto a truck in Malaysia.

The German parliament on Thursday started a debate over a quota law requiring biofuels -- organic, renewable sources of energy -- to make up a small percentage of the nation's energy supply. Current targets call for them to comprise at least 4.4 percent of the market by 2007. Biofuels burn cleaner than petroleum, and many are derived from crops which can be grown again and again -- guaranteeing business for local farmers.

The biofuel industry is responsible for an estimated 86,000 jobs, according to the ifo institute, an economics think tank in Munich. No surprise, then, that the German Farmers Association, the Association of Agricultural Biofuels and the Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants are in favor of what they call a decisive step "away from petroleum" and want a higher quota of 10 percent.

In Europe, rapeseed oil is a primary source of biofuel. But it is considerably more expensive to produce than palm oil, a popular alternative. Palm oil is a key export for Indonesia which, together with Malaysia, is the world's leading producer of crude palm oil, responsible for 85 percent of production. In southern Germany two power plants that will rely primarily on palm oil for an output of 200 megawatts are in the planning stages.

But just because something is a renewable energy source, doesn't automatically mean it's good for the environment. In fact, if you ask environmental groups, palm oil diesel can be extremely detrimental to the environment.

The problem is that in order to grow more of the lucrative crop, environmental groups fear Indonesia will clear rainforest land. Earlier this year, Indonesia's government tossed plans to develop the world's largest palm oil plantation -- nearly 2 million hectars -- by clearing one of the most diverse rainforest areas in the world only after it was proven that much of the proposed area was too high and steep for cultivation. But in order to supply just 1 percent of the EU's fuel needs, a 3 million hectar plantation would be required, according to a new study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The parliamentary discussions in Germany will also focus on what to do about the controversial palm oil. One state environmental minister is calling for a change in the renewable energy law requiring that only plant oils produced in an environmentally friendly way be used for generating energy.

Otherwise, Germany could find itself in an odious position. Because palm oil diesel, like all biofuels, is a renewable energy source, it would be subsidized. In effect, Germany could be indirectly financing the clearing of the Indonesian rainforest.


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