Draining Swamps To Fuel Autos
A report out from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting, which was held in Barcelona, identifies peaty wetlands as a major source of CO2. Marshes, swamps and bogs emit about 1.3 billion tonnes of CO2 a year as a result of human activity that drains them. If those dried out former swamps catch fire that amount can double and large amounts of aerosols can be emitted as well. With governments offering subsidies for growing biofuel crops the question is, how do we stop people from draining the world's remaining wetlands?
According to Hans Joosten of the University of Greifswald, Germany, one of the report’s authors, drained peatlands emit a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide. Although drained peat occupies a only 0.3% of the world’s land surface, it is responsible for 6% of man-made CO2 emissions. The report identifies the nations most involved with this swamp draining activity. Topping the list is Indonesia, with emissions of 500 million tons of CO2 a year, not including additional emissions due to fire. Though Indonesia is by far the largest offender, a number of developed countries are guilty as well. Next on the list is Russia, followed by China, America and Finland (see chart).
Leading swamp and bog draining nations. Source The Economist.
Much of the swamp draining in Indonesia can be attributed to replacing moisture-loving rubber trees with oil palms, used to make biofuels for import to Europe and China. According to Indonesia’s own figures, 9.4 million acres of forest have been planted with oil palm since 1996, an area larger than the American states of New Hampshire and Connecticut combined. That works out to 2,000 acres a day, or about a football field a minute. Indonesia is second in palm oil only to nearby Malaysia. “This isn’t mowing your lawn or putting up a factory on the outskirts of town,” said Stephen Brend, a zoologist and field conservationist with the London-based Orangutan Foundation. “It’s changing everything as far as the eye can see.”
More than 10 years after the massive fires of 1997-98 grabbed international headlines, the problem is still far from solved. A recent report for the Indonesian government by McKinsey, a consulting firm, outlined steps to be taken to reduce the damage. The report proposed reducing CO2 emissions from the country’s peatlands by 900 million tons a year through a combination of halting further marsh deforestation, better water management, and fire control.
Guido van der Werf and a team of researchers has analyzed the density of smog during Indonesian forest fires. The analysis showed that the intensity of the forest fires is directly linked to population density and land use. Nature Geoscience published the results of this research on February 22, 2009. In addition to the major human influences, the researchers also analyzed the influence of two meteorological phenomena. The influence of El Niño on the amount of rainfall was already known, but the Indian Ocean Dipole, which exerts a major influence on water surface temperature, was identified as an equally important factor.
Ten-day fire hotspot satellite image for period 7-17 July 2009 showing hotspots throughout much of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Red dots indicate fire hotspots. This image was taken at the beginning of this year’s El Niño dry season; it is likely that substantially more hotspots will be detected as this dry season progresses. Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC MODIS Rapid Response.
Although severe drought provides conditions conducive to forest fires, it is often humans who are actually responsible. Many fires are deliberately started to free up land for agriculture. The sustained burning of biomass not only releases the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane but also large quantities of carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Consequently, during major fire years the air quality in Indonesia is many times worse than that in the worlds' most polluted cities. Given the new found importance of aerosols on atmospheric warming the problem has become even more pressing (see “African Dust The New CO2?,” “Arctic Aerosols Indicate Melting Ice Not Caused By CO2” and “Warming Caused by Soot, Not CO2”).
Even so, while forest destruction still causes “high emissions,” the “perspective has changed,” contends van der Werf. The study reflected a lower deforestation rate than the IPCC due to more detailed satellite imagery showing tree coverage. “Carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion have increased substantially” the article in Nature Geoscience said. That makes “the relative contribution from deforestation and forest degradation even smaller.” It seems that climate scientists can not even agree on the importance of not draining and burning the world's remaining swamplands.
Fires at Sebangau Forest, Central Kalimantan threaten Borneo's wild Orangutans. Photo by CIMTROP
One thing that scientists and people all over the world are beginning to understand is that water is becoming a scarce commodity. Though I have reported on the link between biofuels and extreme water use (see “Watering Down Biofuels”) a new article in Science has reiterated the magnitude of the problem. In a a news focus article by Robert F. Service entitled “Another Biofuels Drawback: The Demand for Irrigation” the problem is outlined:
Biofuels promise energy and climate gains, but in some cases, those improvements wouldn't be dramatic. And they come with some significant downsides, such as the potential for increasing the price of corn and other food staples. Now, a series of recent studies is underscoring another risk: A widespread shift toward biofuels could pinch water supplies and worsen water pollution. In short, an increased reliance on biofuel trades an oil problem for a water problem.
Converting biological feedstocks into biofuel has been found to be an inefficient process (see “Better To Burn Than To Brew Ethanol”). Now it seems that other requirements of biofuel manufacture can place an even greater strain on limited water supplies. Agriculture already consumes 70% of all global freshwater withdrawn worldwide, depleting soil nutrients, draining underground aquifers and promoting desertification. More and more, the amount of water needed to produce a given amount of energy must be factored into the true cost of a power source.
A report from Argonne National Laboratory by Deborah Elcock, an energy and environmental policy analyst, predicts that water consumption for energy production in the US will jump two-thirds between 2005 and 2030—from about 6 billion gallons of water per day to roughly 10 billion gallons per day. Though the increase is driven primarily by population growth, about half of that increase will go toward growing biofuels. Nor is this strictly an American problem.
According to the UN, the world faces a bleak future over its dwindling water supplies. The warning from the UN is based on a comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's fresh water, which involved some 24 UN agencies. “Today, water management crises are developing in most of the world,” says the 3rd World Water Development Report. The demand for water is increasing rapidly because of industrialization, rising living standards and changing diets that include more foods—primarily meat—that require larger amounts of water to produce.
Water required for energy production. Source Dominguez-Faus et al.
Deepak Divan and Frank Kreikebaum from Georgia Tech, writing in the November 2009 IEEE Spectrum, put the issue into perspective: “organic biofuels can't possibly fuel a growing world economy in a sustainable manner.” By their calculations running the world on biofuels would require crop land equivalent to 193% of Earth's surface and 173% of annual global precipitation to keep the plants watered—an obvious impossibility (see “Biofuels Aren't Really Green”). Yet in both the US and the EU government mandates have been passed requiring the use of biofuels as a way of reducing CO2 emissions and, to a lesser degree, attaining energy independence.
It is a captivating idea, growing your own fuel supply in the same way food is produced, while at the same time eliminating carbon emissions said to cause global warming. This is particularly attractive to the United States, already an agricultural powerhouse with excess arable land. The ineffectiveness of biofuels—ethanol and biodiesel—has been widely noted, with reports from the EPA, California's CARB and the EU's joint Research Council claiming that biofuels pollute more than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace. Still, this has not prevented the biofuels industry from receiving big government subsidies. Congress's “Cap and Trade” legislation will not fix biofuel's problems either. According to a reassessment of greenhouse gas reduction goals by Timothy D. Searchinger et al., “carbon cap accounting ignores land-use emissions altogether, creating its own large, perverse incentives.”
In 2007, the perceived benefits of biofuels helped spur the US Congress to pass the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which mandated a nearly fivefold increase in U.S. ethanol production, to 117 billion liters, by 2022. Of this amount, nearly half is slated to come from corn ethanol by 2015. If this goal is pursued it will cause food prices to rise, fresh water to become scarcer, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to expand and overall air pollution to increase. This is not good economic policy. This is not good environmental policy. This is not good energy policy. It is special interest politics at its worst. Biofuels are the last thing the world needs.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
There are an estimated 6,500 orangutans left on Sumatra, in 10 identified populations on the island. Of those, probably only six contain more than 250 individuals, with just three of those containing more than 1000 individuals. Is biodiesel production worth their extinction?