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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Are We Putting Tigers in Our Tanks?

July 30, 2008

Fossil fuels burned in 1997 were generated from carbon equal to 422 years’ worth of Earth’s current productivity, or 73 times the global standing stock of vegetation. To replace our fossil fuel use with biofuels, humanity’s footprint would have to increase by 50 percent (1).

United States

Production of biodiesel grew from about 6,000 tonnes in 2000 to about 230,000 tonnes in 2005 (2), and is expected to exceed 2 million tonnes by 2015 (3).

Much of the new biodiesel will be made from imported oils. For example, one refinery opening in 2007 will have an annual capacity of 300,000 tonnes and plans to use palm oil for 30% of its production (4).


From 2000 to 2005, Brazil lost 15.6 million ha of forest (5). In the same period, Brazil planted an additional 9.2 million ha of soybeans and increased its production of soybean oil by 40%, or 1.6 million tones (6).

Brazil has 10 biodiesel refineries with another 40 under construction. The government recently passed a mandate of 5% biodiesel in all commercial diesel by 2013. Much of the new biodiesel will be made from soybean oil (7).

European Union

Biodiesel production uses about 3 million ha in the EU (8), or about 6% of the EU’s arable land area (9).

Between 2004 and 2005, biodiesel production in the EU increased 65% (10), reaching 6.1 million tonnes for 2006 (8). The EU has set a target of 20% biodiesel in their fuel by the year 2020 (11).

If the UK were to rely on domestically grown canola to meet the EU’s 20% goal, it would require 91% of the UK’s arable land (11).

In 2005, Indonesia and Malaysia together provided over 42%, by value, of the EU’s imported animal and vegetable oils, fats, and waxes (12).


Malaysia’s Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities announced in July (13) that Malaysia and Indonesia, which together produce 40% of the world’s palm oil (14), would be setting aside 40% of their crude palm oil output for biodiesel production (13).

From 2000 to 2005, Malaysia lost 615,000 ha of forest (15) while adding 550,000 ha of oil palm plantations and increasing their production of palm oil by nearly 40% (6).

In October, Malaysia began mixing 5% biodiesel into all its diesel fuel and has approved plans for 52 new biodiesel processing plants (16).

In 2004, Malaysia and Indonesia together produced 88% of world palm oil exports (17). They exported 78% of their combined production (6, 17). *


Endangered megafauna such as Sumatran tigers, orangutans, and Sumatran rhinoceroses live in those areas in Indonesia most at risk for conversion to oil palm plantations (18).

From 2000 to 2005, Indonesia had the second highest annual loss of forest cover by area of any country in the world (after Brazil) (19), losing 9.8 million ha of forest (20). In the same period, Indonesia planted 1.6 million ha of oil palm, increasing production by 87% (6).

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has promised US$110 million as assistance to farmers to plant oil palms and other biofuel crops (16).

“Green Gold” or “Deforestation Diesel”?

The explosive growth of the biofuel industry has been accompanied by an equally vigorous debate among conservationists about the unintended consequences of using crops to meet our energy needs. A little digging will turn up a multitude of opinions on the subject, with outlooks ranging from enthusiastic to distinctly bleak. We’ve chosen a few notable articles to provide an entry point to the conversation.

Chief IUCN Scientist Jeffrey McNeely Lays Out the Debate

McNeely, J.A. 2006. “Biofuels: Green energy or grim reaper?” BBC News, September 22.

Debate over Biodiesel in Brazil: Op-Eds by Brazilian President and WWF Climate Change Coordinator

Silva, L.I.L. 2006. “Join Brazil in Planting Oil.” The Guardian, March 7.

Volpi, G. 2006. “Soya is not the solution to climate change.” The Guardian, March 16.

Biodiesel: The World’s Most Carbon-Intensive Fuel?

Monbiot, George. 2005. “Worse than Fossil Fuel.”, December 6.

On the Ground in Borneo

Barta, P. and Spencer, J. 2006. “Crude Awakening: As alternative energy heats up, environmental concerns grow.” Wall Street Journal, December 5.

News and Views from the E.U. and U.S. Biodiesel Industry

European Biodiesel Board. 2006. “Media Corner.”

National Biodiesel Board. 2007. “Press Releases.”


(1) Dukes, J. S. 2003. Burning buried sunshine: Human consumption of ancient solar energy. Climatic Change 61(1-2):31-44.

(2) National Biodiesel Board. 2006. Estimated U.S. Biodiesel Production. National Biodiesel Board, Jefferson City, MO.

(3) Urbanchuck, J. 2006. Contribution of the biodiesel industry to the economy of the United States. National Biodiesel Board, Jefferson City, MO.

(4) Timmerman, L. 2006. Can biodiesel compete on price? The Seattle Times, December 10. Seattle, WA.

(5) FAO Forestry Department. 2006. Country Pages – Brazil. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

(6) FAO Statistics Division. 2006. ProdSTAT: Crops. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

(7) Ewing, Reese. 2006. Brazil’s Lula opens 1st ethanol-biodiesel plant. Reuters, November 21. London, U.K.

(8) European Biodiesel Board. 2006. About Biodiesel. European Biodiesel Board, Brussels, Belgium.

(9) USDA Economic Research Service. 1997. Data sets: European Agricultural Statistics. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.

(10) European Biodiesel Board. 2006. Statistics: The EU Biodiesel Industry. European Biodiesel Board, Brussels, Belgium.

(11) Monbiot, George. 2004. Feeding Cars, Not People., November 23.

(12) European Commission. 2006. European Union and its main trading partners: Economic and trade indicators. European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.

(13) Malaysia, Indonesia set aside 40% CPO for biodiesel. The Star Online, July 21, 2006. Kulala Lumpur, Malaysia.

(14) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. 2006. Oilseeds: world market and trade archives. February 2006 Circular. USDA, Washington, D.C.

(15) FAO Forestry Department. 2006. Country Pages – Malaysia. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

(16) Fuels rush in. The Economist, August 24, 2006.

(17) FAO Statistics Division. 2006. TradeSTAT: Detailed Trade Data. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

(18) Clay, Jason W. 2004. World Agriculture and the Environment: a commodity-by-commodity guide to impacts and practices. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

(19) FAO. 2005. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

(20) FAO Forestry Department. 2006. Country Pages – Indonesia. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

* Data in the FAO statistical databases are updated frequently and are subject to change. The data for this article were retrieved in November 2006.

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