The only thing green in biodiesel is money

It will take 200 years of continuous biodiesel production to pay off the carbon debt of the Indonesian palm plantations produce it …

by Stephen Leahy

(IPS) The only green in biodiesel fuel is the money producers make from it, new research has revealed.

Most biodiesel production is making climate change worse not better, studies show. Biodiesel from palm oil plantations may be the world’s dirtiest fuel – far worse than burning diesel made from oil when the entire production life cycle is considered.

Biodiesel made from the many palm oil plantations on Indonesia’s peatlands have a “carbon debt of 200 years”, said Louis Verchot, a research scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia.

This means it will take 200 years of continuous biodiesel production from these palm oil plantations to pay off the “carbon debt” that results from land conversion and indirect land use changes.

Verchot and colleagues’ study is the first real-world look at the climate impacts of biodiesel and was published last month in the journal Ecology and Society. The study looked at biodiesel production involving palm oil, jatropha and soy at 12 sites in six different countries.

“Our study shows we have to eliminate a lot of what we’re trying to do in the name of protecting the atmosphere,” he said.

Global biodiesel production worldwide has risen by 10 times over the last eight years, topping 11 billion litres in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. Ethanol production has risen by more than four times since 2000 and was close to 90 billion litres by the end of 2011. Those gains are being driven by government policies that mandate ever increasing amounts of biofuel be used in transportation fuels.

When burned, biodiesel emits between 40 and 75 percent less climate- heating carbon than regular diesel, according to various estimates. However, in order to grow palm oil, Indonesia’s peat forests have been cleared and burned, resulting in huge emissions of carbon – on the order of 200 to 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare – Verchot told IPS.

In addition, these wet peatlands are drained and when exposed to air the peat decomposes and releases about 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. The resulting “carbon debt” is so large it will take 200 years of continuous biodiesel production from these palm oil plantations to pay it off, he said.

In other words, if palm oil was planted during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, it would still be paying off its carbon debt today.

“I don’t know of any place in the world where a single crop has been grown that long,” Verchot said.

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4 years 8 months ago

I’ve always preferred to call it agro-diesel or agro-fuel anyway, as in agro-industrial. Much closer to the reality as Stephan’s article shows.

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