New study & deforestation spike show need for "no-go" zones in biofuel crop production

Last week, Conservation International (CI) released a new study that examines ways biofuels can be produced without threatening biodiversity or food security. CI used spatial mapping to identify overlap among potential biofuel crop cultivation zones and areas of high biodiversity, ecosystem services, and staple food crop production. The analysis, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, was global in scope with an additional focus on the upper Amazon Basin. The study’s objective is to provide decision-makers in the public and private sectors with information and concrete tools to assess where the cultivation of biofuel crops might negatively impact carbon sequestration, water systems, and biodiversity habitat.  The study also points to areas where biofuel crops could interfere with the production of staple crops and, in contrast, where biofuel crops could be produced without negative consequences.

The study came out on the same day as reports from Brazil’s national space research institute of a new spike in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The institute’s satellite images show a 27% jump in deforestation between August 2010 and April 2011, with the biggest increase in the state of Mato Grosso, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil's soybean harvest.

CI’s study underscores the need to erect an economic and regulatory "fence" around the carbon- and biodiversity-rich natural ecosystems of the world, just as this unfortunate news out of Brazil once again sounds an alarm about the immense pressures the world’s most ecologically valuable lands are under and the importance of strong forest safeguards.

These developments also force us to once again examine the complex, market-driven effects our policies are having on land use around the world. Many factors are contributing to deforestation in Brazil, including Brazil’s enforcement of its own Forest Code. Biofuels mandates in the U.S. and other industrialized countries are among them. The rapid growth of the U.S. corn ethanol industry—and the impact this growth has had on many U.S. farmers’ decision to shift from growing soy to growing corn—has contributed to increases in soy prices and the expansion of soy production in places like Mato Grosso.

The U.S. corn ethanol industry and its proponents have argued that because U.S. soy exports haven’t decreased, this means there is no link between corn ethanol production and international deforestation.  But, as we discussed here and here, these arguments focus exclusively on the supply side of corn and soy markets and don’t actually tell us anything about what U.S. soy exports would have been had U.S. biofuels mandates not been in place to drive the expansion of the corn ethanol industry. They therefore tell us nothing about what the impacts of these policies actually are on what is commonly referred to as “indirect land-use change” or ILUC.

The fact is that our bioenergy policies are having far-reaching, unintended impacts around the world. CI’s approach is valuable because it goes beyond simplistic estimates of the technical production potential of biofuel crops to identify priority areas for biofuel investment—areas where bioenergy crop cultivation has the potential to benefit local economies without risking the destruction of valuable ecosystems like Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest— as well as “no-go” areas of high conservation importance to be put off limits to bioenergy crop production. It is critical that our energy policies limit government support to biofuels produced in these types of “no-go” areas. What we need are smart energy policies that reward the lowest carbon and most sustainable fuels coupled with strong, well-enforced laws that protect our natural, biodiverse ecosystems and their stores of carbon.