Bio-energy: dream or nightmare?

The rush to produce bio-energy crops is alarming for biodiversity outside Europe too. Some of the most promising crops for producing biofuels are oil palm and Soy, two rapidly expanding tropical monocultures which are amongst the chief causes of tropical deforestation… demand for biodiesel could drive even further the large scale clearing of forests in key biodiversity hotspots such as Indonesia or the Brazilian Cerrado.

Bio-energy is a term used to describe energy derived from organic materials—living plants and plant components. The production of bio-energy is gathering more and more attention as a feasible way of reducing dependence on imported oil and gas and is even being hailed as one of the potential key weapons in the battle against global warming. BirdLife International has been exploring the issue in depth, to discover what growth in the ‘new industry’ could really mean for the environment and birds.

“If managed sustainably, the use of biomass, biogas and biofuels could help us to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ariel Brunner, Agriculture Policy Officer at BirdLife International, “However, without adequate regulation and a well developed EU policy on the industry, widespread and rapid uptake of growing crops for bio-energy production could have devastating impacts on the environment.”

Is it really green?

“The great appeal of bioenergy is that it is theoretically a renewable source of energy,” explained Brunner, “Crops can be converted to energy either by being processed into liquid fuel for the transport sector (biofuels) or by being burnt in power plants (biomass). With combustion, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released. Because they are derived from biological material, the carbon released on combustion comes from CO2 absorbed by plant material through the process of photosynthesis. Effectively, producing energy from biofuels or biomass could be seen as ‘recycling’ CO2.”

“However, this rosy picture is over-simplistic. Bioenergy production is never a neutral process when it comes to “greenhouse gases”. During production, processing and transportation of the crops there are many other inputs to consider. Fossil fuels are used to power tractors for working the land; fertilizers and pesticides are needed to grow the energy crops, one of the most potent greenhouse gases N2O, is released from fields that are intensively fertilized, and a lot of energy is needed to convert the crop into fuel. In fact, life-cycle analyses of bioenergy production have shown that with poor management methods, production can actually result in a net increase in the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Bioenergy crops could replace natural habitats

It is not only the carbon balance of bioenergy production that concerns BirdLife. With recent changes in European Agricultural policy, many farmers in Europe are turning to growing bioenergy crops to boost incomes and provide some new rural opportunities. All very important positive benefits for rural communities, but this should not be at the expense of habitats within the agricultural landscape which are important for nature.

A recent assessment of the overall status of birds in Europe by BirdLife International indicates that 43% of all bird species are now in trouble, and that the situation has worsened over the past ten years. Farmland birds in the EU have fared particularly badly experiencing a decline of 32% between 1980 and 2002. Many common farmland birds such as Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer, Barn Swallow and Tree Sparrow have already gone through a sharp or even catastrophic decline in the EU and this is due largely to the intensification of agriculture.

The current rapid expansion of energy crops in Europe often utilizes set-aside land, which had previously been withdrawn from production under the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers were paid subsidy to provide set-aside land, and these pockets of natural land are currently vital for the survival of birds and other wildlife.

In many areas of intensive agriculture, set-asides comprise virtually the only habitat left for many grassland-dependent species, such as the Little Bustard. In France this species is breeding almost exclusively on pockets of habitat provided by set-aside land. Farmers are already allowed to grow energy crops on set-aside land, and if further incentives are given to do this, Europe might lose hundreds of thousands of hectares of key wildlife habitat within a few years.

A serious global issue

Ariel Brunner points out the global implications of increasing use of bio-energy: “The rush to produce bio-energy crops is alarming for biodiversity outside Europe too. Some of the most promising crops for producing biofuels are oil palm and Soy, two rapidly expanding tropical monocultures which are amongst the chief causes of tropical deforestation. A huge surge in demand for biodiesel could drive even further the large scale clearing of forests in key biodiversity hotspots such as Indonesia or the Brazilian Cerrado.”

The Indonesian Government has just announced plans to clear three million hectares of forest to create palm oil plantations dedicated to biodiesel production. Losing such large areas of precious habitat will serve a death sentence to threatened bird species like the Sumatran Ground-cuckoo and also threatened mammal species such as the Orang-utan Pongo pygmaeus.

The EU sets the precedence for regulation of the industry

Bio-energy has been in the spotlight in the EU for the last few months. The European Commission is keen to promote its production and use. Not only does the Commission want to encourage the uptake of ‘greener energy production’ but also appease European farmers, in particular from the sugar sector; who have been affected by recent reforms of agricultural policies and will experience cuts in subsidies in certain sectors.

The Commission published an Action Plan on the promotion of biomass use in energy production in December last year and more recently in February this year, it issued a strategy on the promotion of biofuels.

Clairie Papazoglou , BirdLife’s Head of European Division, said: “We want to avoid the dream of ‘green energy’ being transformed into a nightmare for biodiversity. The EU has pledged to ensure that biofuels are sustainably produced and we shall be watching closely whether this declaration is followed by concrete action. Environmental protection must not be lost in the EU’s drive to promote biofuels.”