The RFS and the corn-soy-deforestation connection

December's Science carried a wonderfully insightful letter from William Laurance from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (Here's the link to the letter, if you have a subscription, or Climate Progress has pasted it in full here.) In the letter, Laurance traces the connection between increasing corn production and decreasing soy production here in the US and increasing fires and clearing in the Amazon rainforest. It is particularly helpful that he explains the multiple paths that connect the increased Brazilian soy production to increased deforestation:

Some Amazonian forests are directly cleared for soy farms. Farmers also purchase large expanses of cattle pasture for soy production, effectively pushing the ranchers farther into the Amazonian frontier or onto lands unsuitable for soy production. In addition, higher soy costs tend to raise global beef prices because soy-based livestock feeds become more expensive, creating an indirect incentive for forest conversion to pasture. Finally, the powerful Brazilian soy lobby is a key driving force behind initiatives to expand Amazonian highways and transportation networks in order to transport soybeans to market, and this is greatly increasing access to forests for ranchers, loggers, and land speculators.

Biopact, in covering the letter, quotes Laurance as saying: "The evidence of a corn connection to the Amazon is circumstantial, but it's about as close as you ever get to a smoking gun." I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's circumstantial. It's complicated and indirect, but it is inevitable given current market rules and regulations.

So what are we going to do about it? Well, as I've written about the energy bill (H.R.6) just signed into law sets lifecycle global warming pollution reduction standards for all new biofuels used to comply with the expanded renewable fuel standard. Importantly, the definition of lifecycle GHG reads:

The term `lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions' means the aggregate quantity of greenhouse gas emissions (including direct emissions and significant indirect emissions such as significant emissions from land use changes), as determined by the Administrator, related to the full fuel lifecycle....

The phrase "as determined by the Administrator" (EPA Administrator that is) is a clue that while the definition is specifically intended to address the type of indirect impacts that Laurance is writing about, the benefits of the RFS GHG standards depend on good implementing regulations. Of course NRDC will be working on this, but it's complicated and a genuine challenge to get the accounting protocol right.

Ultimately, what is needed is an economic and regulatory "fence" around the carbon- and biodiversity-rich natural ecosystems of the world. The Wall St. Journal reported recently on some promising radar developments that could help make international agreements establishing such a fence possible.  There's still significant challenges before measurements of deforestation, forest thinning, and the related carbon emissions will be accurate enough that markets for reduce deforestation can really function, but it seems like we'll get there. Some type of fence is critical to protect these ecosystems not just from biofuels but also from food and urban sprawl, and with deforestation contributing about 20% of global GHG emissions, this fence is critical to stopping global warming.

Importantly, countries like Brazil appear keen on getting these markets to work and Brazil in particular has shown (see the Biopact post linked to above) that efforts to reduce deforestation can make a real difference.

The combination of technology-neutral, performance-based biofuels policies that drive the lowest carbon fuels and international agreements to protect our natural ecosystems and their stores of carbon is the ultimate package of market rules to make biofuels all they can be from a climate perspective. Of course, there's more than just climate to "green" renewable fuels. Laurance also has an article in the current issue of Science about a new study that attempts to look at non-carbon environmental impacts. (The Science article is here, but is by subscription only. The study is by R. Zah et al and is German. If anyone knows of a translation, I would love to see it.) Apparently, the study finds that most, but not all, types of biofuels perform worse than petroleum fuels on these non-carbon impacts. The non-carbon impacts of petroleum fuels are pretty big (e.g. this set of posts from my friend and colleague Kate Wing). Ultimately, we need to address to full range of impacts from all our energy sources, but I believe that a comprehensive approach to advancing the lowest carbon fuels will provide the most benefits across the board.