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Oil-Palm Biofuel Plantations: Doubly Bad for the Biosphere
Danielsen, F., Beukema, H., Burgess, N.D., Parish, F., Bruhl, C.A., Donald, P.F., Murdiyarso, D., Phalan, B., Reijnders, L., Struebig, M. and Fitzherbert, E.B. 2008. Biofuel plantations on forested lands: Double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate. Conservation Biology 23: 348-358.

What was done
The authors explored the climatic impact of creating oil-palm plantations for biofuel production by assessing changes in land carbon stocks caused by replacing tropical forests and peatlands with oil-palms and comparing the results with the amount of carbon emissions avoided by replacing conventional fossil fuels with the biofuel. In addition, they explored the biodiversity impact of replacing tropical forests with oil-palms via assessments of other plant species growing in oil palm and forest plots in Indonesia, augmented with a meta-analysis of published studies that compare animal species found in tropical forests with those found in oil-palm plantations.

What was learned
With respect to climatic impact, Danielsen et al. estimate that "it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion," and that "if the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years." With respect to biodiversity impact, they found that "trees, lianas, epiphytic orchids, and indigenous palms were wholly absent from oil-palm plantations," and that "the majority of individual plants and animals in oil-palm plantations belonged to a small number of generalist species of low conservation concern."

What it means
The eleven researchers, hailing from seven different nations, conclude that "as countries strive to meet obligations to reduce carbon emissions under one international agreement (Kyoto Protocol), they may not only fail to meet their obligations under another (Convention on Biological Diversity) but may actually hasten global climate change" if they replace tropical forests or peatlands with oil-palm plantations. Hence, they take the logical position that "reducing deforestation is likely to represent a more effective climate-change mitigation strategy than converting forest for biofuel production," and they say that it may also "help nations meet their international commitments to reduce biodiversity loss."

Reviewed 15 July 2009