The production of liquid biofuels is rapidly increasing. Governments are setting targets to increase the proportion of biofuels in their energy mix for the purposes of climate change mitigation, energy security and rural development. Most research to date has focused on the performance of biofuels in reducing carbon emissions, with questions being raised over their potential in this respect. Far less attention has been paid to the potential impacts of biofuels on biodiversity.
The biodiversity impact of biofuels will depend on the biofuel crop and the previous land use. Biofuels can be beneficial to biodiversity when appropriate crops are grown in suitable areas. Furthermore, if they contribute to climate change mitigation, they have the potential to be indirectly beneficial to biodiversity as a whole. However, biofuels have already been shown to negatively impact biodiversity when direct conversion of natural ecosystems or indirect land conversion of non-degraded land occurs. The expansion of biofuel production in the tropics has resulted in the loss of tropical forest and wetlands, and in temperate regions biofuel production has encroached into set-aside lands. Biofuel feedstock plantations (particularly oil palm and maize plantations), have been shown to support far lower levels if biodiversity than natural ecosystems, and can cause soil erosion and the pollution of watercourses. How a feedstock plantation is managed influences the level of biodiversity impacts. Well managed plantations can in some instances prove beneficial to biodiversity especially if these are on degraded or marginal lands.
As the demand for biofuels increases in the future so will the land requirements. Conversion of natural land is likely to be detrimental to biodiversity. Furthermore post-conversion management can also negatively impact biodiversity through the pollution of fertilizers for example. Some maintain that the ‘next generation’ of biofuels will require less land or be more productive and therefore reduce negative biodiversity impacts though there is much uncertainty surrounding this. The introduction of sustainability standards is one option to reduce the biodiversity impacts of biofuel production. However, the development and implementation of these standards is proving difficult, largely due to the lack of accepted definitions for key terms such as ‘high biodiversity’ and ‘degraded’ lands. In any case, it is likely that sustainability standards will only be part of the solution, and will need to be combined with improved land use planning.
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