Friday, January 30, 2015

[biofuelwatch] The science is clear: Forest loss behind Brazil’s drought


The science is clear: Forest loss behind Brazil's drought

Flickr photo.

New research is showing the effects of forests on rainfall in the Amazon, and as deforestation in the region continues, rainfall in the southern part of Brazil will continue to be affected. Flickr photo


The role of tropical deforestation in global climate change has been the subject of much international discussion and debate in the media and in policy forums like the UN Climate Change Convention. However, the role of deforestation in local climate change has received much less attention.

Now, with southern Brazil suffering from unprecedented drought, attention is turning toward more localized impacts of deforestation.  Dr. Antonio Nobre, a scientist at the Brazilian National Space Research Institute, released a report, "The Future Climate of Amazonia," that linked the current drought to deforestation in the Amazon Basin.Politicians are questioning these conclusions. What does the science say?


In 2009, CIFOR scientists Douglas Sheil and Daniel Murdiyarso summarized the scientific understanding of the relationship between forests and rainfall in an article in BioScience. At the time, the link between deforestation and declining rainfall was still uncertain. There were indications in the scientific literature that deforestation disrupted cloud formation and accentuated rainfall seasonality in areas that have distinct wet and dry seasons.

Evidence was accumulating that a significant amount of rain falling in the interior of continents was recycled—meaning that the water had previously fallen near the continental margins, been pumped back into the atmosphere by vegetation, and was falling again.

This was true of many areas of the world. In the US, 50 percent of the rainfall in the Midwest was recycled; in the Sahel of West Africa, the figure was 90 percent. However, a significant amount of water falling as rainfall in some areas is not recycled.  For example, only about 30 percent to 60 percent of the rainfall is recycled water in the Amazon Basin.

One of the mysteries at the time of Sheil and Murdiyarso's article was how flat lowlands in the interior of continents maintained wet environments. If recycling is the key mechanism for rainfall reaching the interior of continents, then rainfall should decrease as distance from the coast increases. Indeed, in many places in the world, this phenomenon can be observed—except where there are extensive areas of natural forests.


In the mid-2000s, two physicists—Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute—proposed a novel physical phenomenon to explain how tropical rainforests keep the interior of continents humid. In these regions, forests have higher evaporation rates than other vegetation types. As the humid air rises from forests into the atmosphere, the water vapor condenses. This decreases the volume of the air, and the air pressure plummets.

Because air flows from places of high pressure to those of low pressure, this decrease in pressure sucks additional dense air in, and so forests draw in moist air from elsewhere (for example, from over the oceans). This additional moist air rises and condenses in turn, generating a situation where a large proportion of the water condensing as clouds over wet areas is drawn in from elsewhere.

Makarieva and Gorshkov call this phenomenon a "biotic pump," and they demonstrated it with data from the Amazon River Basin and the Congo River Basin in Equatorial Africa. Other scientists began looking at this phenomenon and provided additional evidence for the existence of a biotic pump. In 2012, Dominick Spracklen and others looked across the tropics and found that when air passed over extensive vegetation, it produced at least twice as much rain as air that passed over little vegetation.

Spracklen and others went further and integrated Makarieva and Gorshkov's physical phenomenon into a climate model to see the effect of deforestation on rainfall. Because the primary air flow into the Amazon Basin is from the Atlantic Ocean, and because most of the deforestation occurs on the eastern and southern flanks of the Basin, there is cause for concern. Their simulation showed that continued deforestation in the Amazon Basin would lead to decreased rainfall.


The idea that water flows around the atmosphere in observable pathways is not new; it was first proposed in an article by Reginald Newell and others in Geophysical Research Letters in 1992.  Several studies have confirmed these and show, in addition, that these "aerial rivers" are responsible for the rainfall in southeastern Brazil.  Contrary to surface rivers, these aerial rivers gain water from the vegetation as it pumps water out of the soil and lose it through rainfall.

Several groups have been working on this phenomenon during the past decade, and our understanding of the importance of these aerial rivers has grown. In particular, we now understand how these massive flows of water through the atmosphere relate to rainfall around the South American continent.

To cite one study, Josefina Moraes Arraut and others from the Brazilian Institute of Space Studies showed that as the air masses move across the Amazon, enhanced by the biotic pump, they eventually encounter the Andean Cordillera, where they veer south and eventually east to bring humidity from the Amazon Basin to southeastern Brazil and northern Argentina.  Thus, maintaining the biotic pump in the Amazon is essential for ensuring water delivery to southeastern Brazil.


The governor of São Paulo expressed skepticism over the role of the Amazonian deforestation in the drought affecting his state in an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last month.  Yet the science is clear, and it goes beyond simple correlation among observations: The mechanisms of water circulation between the Amazon Basin and the southern regions east of the Andes are well established.

As deforestation in the Amazon continues, rainfall in the southern part of Brazil will continue to be affected. The Amazonian forest will continue to lose its ability to regulate the climate and ensure a flow of water to the southeastern part of the country. Additionally, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon will affect northern Argentina, so the problem has an international dimension.

Politicians need to balance development objectives and environmental concerns, but in this case it is fairly clear that the two go hand in hand. Thus, there appear to be two options for wise action.

On the one hand, politicians can decide to stop the problem at its root cause by decreasing Amazonian deforestation and promoting rehabilitation of degraded forest in order to maintain the atmospheric circulation patterns. A second possibility is to integrate expected shortfalls of rainfall into planning and adapt the economic systems of the south to accommodate more frequent droughts. This means improving water storage and distribution while reducing waste. A combination of these two approaches is probably warranted.

There is a third option: One could ignore the problem until it goes away. Climate is variable, and this drought will eventually end. However, it is very likely that this is not an isolated event, and the science suggests that there is more to come.


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[biofuelwatch] Searchinger on why bioenergy won't curb climate change

How does bioenergy contribute to a sustainable food and climate future?

A new WRI paper finds bioenergy can play a modest role using wastes and other niche fuelstocks, but recommends against dedicating land to produce bioenergy. The lesson: do not grow food or grass crops for ethanol or diesel or cut down trees for electricity.

Even modest quantities of bioenergy would greatly increase the global competition for land. People already use roughly three-quarters of the world's vegetated land for crops, livestock grazing and wood harvests. The remaining land protects clean water, supports biodiversity and stores carbon in trees, shrubs and soils—a benefit increasingly important for tackling climate change. The competition for land is growing, even without more bioenergy, to meet likely demands for at least 70 percent more food, forage and wood.

continues at

Why Dedicating Land to Bioenergy Won't Curb Climate Change | World Resources Institute


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[biofuelwatch] Guardian coverage of Searchinger (WRI) biofuel critique

Powering cars with corn and burning wood to make electricity might seem like a way to lessen dependence on fossil fuels and help solve the climate crisis. But although some forms of bioenergy can play a helpful role, dedicating land specifically for generating bioenergy is unwise. It uses land needed for food production and carbon storage, it requires large areas to generate just a small amount of fuel, and it won't typically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

First, dedicating areas to bioenergy production increases competition for land.

Roughly three-quarters of the world's vegetated land is already being used to meet people's need for food and forest products, and that demand is expected to rise by 70% or more by 2050. Much of the rest contains natural ecosystems that keep climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere, protect freshwater supplies, and preserve biodiversity.

Because land and the plants growing on it are already generating these benefits, diverting land – even degraded, under-utilised areas – to bioenergy means sacrificing much-needed food, timber, and carbon storage.

Second, bioenergy production is an inefficient use of land.

While photosynthesis may do a great job of converting the sun's rays into food, it is an inefficient way to turn solar radiation into non-food energy that people can use. Thus, it takes a lot of land (and water) to yield a small amount of fuel from plants. In a new working paper, World Resources Institute (WRI) calculates that providing just 10% of the world's liquid transportation fuel in the year 2050 would require nearly 30% of all the energy in a year's worth of crops the world produces today.

The push for bioenergy extends beyond transportation fuels to the harvest of trees and other sources of biomass for electricity and heat generation. Some research suggests that bioenergy could meet 20% of the world's total annual energy demand by 2050. Yet doing so would require an amount of plants equal to all the world's current crop harvests, plant residues, timber, and grass consumed by livestock – a true non-starter.

Third, bioenergy that makes dedicated use of land does not generally cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Burning biomass, whether directly as wood or in the form of ethanol or biodiesel, emits carbon dioxide just like burning fossil fuels. In fact, burning biomass directly emits a bit more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of generated energy. But most calculations claiming that bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions relative to burning fossil fuels do not include the carbon dioxide released when biomass is burned. They exclude it based on the assumption that this release of carbon dioxide is matched and implicitly offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants growing the biomass.

Yet if those plants were going to grow anyway, simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any additional carbon from the atmosphere and therefore does not offset the emissions from burning that biomass. Furthermore, when natural forests are felled to generate bioenergy or to replace the farm fields that were diverted to growing biofuels, greenhouse gas emissions go up.

more at Biofuels are not a green alternative to fossil fuels


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[biofuelwatch] From the Concorde to Sci-Fi Climate Solutions (with section on BECCS)

[This includes a section about Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage]

From the Concorde to Sci-Fi Climate Solutions

Thursday, 29 January 2015 00:00By Almuth Ernsting, Truthout | News Analysis

Touting "sci-fi climate solutions" - untested technologies not really scalable to the dimensions of our climate change crisis - dangerously delays the day when we actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, I took my son to Scotland's Museum of Flight. Its proudest exhibit: a Concorde. To me, it looked stunningly futuristic. "How old," remarked my son, looking at the confusing array of pre-digital controls in the cockpit. Watching the accompanying video - "Past Dreams of the Future" - it occurred to me that the story of the Concorde stands as a symbol for two of the biggest obstacles to addressing climate change....[continue reading at]


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Thursday, January 29, 2015

[biofuelwatch] Outrage Over US Secret Approval of Genetically Engineered Trees

The International Campaign to STOP GE Trees, Dogwood Alliance & Biofuelwatch


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                               


Outrage Over US Secret Approval of Genetically Engineered Trees


Groups Condemn US for Bowing to Industry, Ignoring Widespread Public Opposition


New York (29 Jan. 2015) ­– Groups from around the world [1] today joined together to denounce the US government for allowing the first genetically engineered tree, a loblolly pine, to be legalized with no government or public oversight, with no assessment of their risks to the public or the environment, and without regard to overwhelming public opposition to GE trees.


A secret letter from the USDA to GE tree company ArborGen [2], dated last August, was recently exposed by scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Food Safety [3]. In this letter, the USDA made the unprecedented decision to allow ArborGen to pursue unregulated commercial cultivation of a loblolly pine genetically engineered for altered wood composition. These trees could be planted anywhere in the US, without public knowledge or access to information about them.


Gurian-Sherman argues the USDA "is deliberately thumbing its nose at the public" with this decision, pointing out that this is probably the biggest environmental regulatory change in the US since the early 1990s [4].


Loblolly pines are native across 14 states throughout the US Southeast, and are grown in plantations around the world. Their pollen is known to travel for hundreds of miles.


"If these GE loblolly pines are released on a large scale in the US, there will be no way to stop them from cross contaminating native loblolly pines," said biologist Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch. "This is deliberate, irreversible and completely irresponsible contamination of the environment with unknown and possibly devastating consequences. Forest ecosystems are barely understood, and the introduction of trees with genes for modified wood characteristics could have all manner of negative impacts on soils, fungi, insects, wildlife, songbirds, and public health. And all this for short term commercial profit."


Many are also worried about the international implications of this USDA decision. Winnie Overbeek, International Coordinator of the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement states, "We are greatly concerned that these unregulated GE pines could be shipped to Brazil or other countries without public, or maybe even government, knowledge, further promoting the expansion of industrial tree plantations in the Global South. This contributes to deforestation and affects indigenous and peasant communities worldwide who depend on forests for survival."


Global Justice Ecology Project's Ruddy Turnstone from Florida remarks, "ArborGen and the government may think they have won this round, but there is already a huge anti-GMO movement. There are also forest protection groups, Indigenous Peoples, birders, foresters, scientists, parents, hikers, and many others who do not want the forests contaminated by GE trees. A great many of them will take action to ensure these trees are never planted."


In 2013, when the USDA called for public comments on another ArborGen request to commercialize a GE Eucalyptus tree (a decision still pending), they received comments at the rate of 10,000 to one opposing the industry request. By simply refusing to regulate this new GE pine, the USDA has cut the public out of the process completely.  In 2013, a conference on Tree Biotechnology in Asheville, NC was disrupted for its entire 5 days by anti-GE tree activists, and there were multiple arrests.


The Campaign to STOP GE Trees is an international alliance of organizations mobilized to protect forests and biodiversity and to support communities threatened by the dangerous release of genetically engineered trees into the environment.




Anne Petermann, Coordinator, Campaign to STOP GE Trees:  +1.716.931.5833  (office), +1.716.364.1188 (mobile),


Jay Burney, Media Coordinator, Campaign to STOP GE Trees: +1.716.931.5833  (office), +1.716.867.4080 (mobile),




1] The Campaign to STOP GE Trees includes: Biofuelwatch (US & UK), Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, EcoNexus (Europe), Friends of the Earth (Melbourne, Australia), Global Justice Ecology Project (Int'l), Indigenous Environmental Network (North America), World Rainforest Movement (Int'l). Dogwood Alliance is based in North Carolina.


2] A letter dated 28 August 2014 from Michael Firko, Assistant Director of the US Department of Agriculture's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, to GE tree company ArborGen agreed with ArborGen's position that their GE loblolly pine did not need to be regulated. This letter was only made public on 13 January 2014.


ArborGen is jointly owned by multinational timber companies International Paper (US), MeadWestvaco (US) and Rubicon (NZ). Most of ArborGen's executive staff comes from Monsanto. ArborGen attempted to offer an initial public offering of its stock in 2010.  They cancelled at the last minute and records show they lost almost $15 million that year.  Stock value of parent company Rubicon was significantly decreased.


3] "New Genetically Engineered Tree To Avoid Federal Oversight Completely"


4] "The Next Phase of Genetic Engineering: A Flood of New Crops Evading Environmental Regulation"


Posted by: Rachel Smolker <>


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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

[biofuelwatch] More on Liberia biomass scam

Questions of corruption swirl around failed biomass project in Liberia

Failed U.S.-backed plan to produce energy in one of Africa's poorest countries marred by insider connections, questionable planning.

BUCHANAN, Liberia—A failed United States government-backed plan to produce environmentally friendly energy in one of Africa's poorest countries was marred by insider connections and questionable planning, an Associated Press investigation found.

The federal agency at the centre of the deal is one of the government's biggest secrets and routinely escapes public scrutiny.

That agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC), approved three loans totalling US$217 million to help a company, Buchanan Renewables Fuel, Inc., convert non-producing rubber trees into biomass chips that would help power Liberia.

The agency approves more than US$3 billion a year in global financing, but its internal watchdog, the Office of Accountability, has issued reports on just five deals since 2005, a period when OPIC approved more than 530 projects.

OPIC's profile is so low it regularly cancels annual public hearings because no one signs up to speak.

In early 2013, Buchanan Renewables shuttered its Liberian operations and dismissed 600 workers.

It never built a promised power plant, so instead of powering a nation in need, it shipped biomass chips to Europe.

It repaid the U.S. government loans, but left Liberia with fields of depleted rubber farms and allegations of sexual abuse and workplace hazards.

From the start, The Associated Press found, OPIC's support for the power project in this western African country was marked by questionable due diligence and deep political links.

Even for ostensibly philanthropic projects meant to aid the world's poorest, profit and corporate opportunities can intersect with family and business ties among Washington's political elite.

On the ground in Liberia, Buchanan Renewables' CEO was James Steele, a larger-than-life former U.S. military figure and onetime Texas business partner of OPIC's then-president and CEO, Robert Mosbacher Jr.

Mosbacher's father was commerce secretary under former U.S. president George H.W. Bush.

Steele drew acclaim, and controversy, over his role in U.S. military exploits from Iran-Contra to Iraq, where he performed work for former president George W. Bush's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Even before the Liberian project, Mosbacher had tapped Steele as a consultant to help OPIC develop power projects in hard-pressed countries.

Over 22 months from 2006 to 2008, the agency paid Steele US$390,000 for consulting and an additional US$114,556 in travel, The Associated Press found.

Then it approved three loans to support Buchanan's vision in Liberia.

The venture collapsed amid tension between the company and Liberian government, questions from the U.S. Embassy and the withdrawal of a vital financier.

As tensions escalated, troubling stories emerged: Charcoal producers having to trade sex for wood promised as part of the undertaking; Buchanan's machinery cracking open an ancestor's grave on one family farm; and the company leaving piles of woodchips that attracted stinging ants and fouled local waters.

Some women said they became pregnant after trading sex for sticks with Buchanan staff members in Liberia.

To Mosbacher, who abstained from OPIC's loan vote, the project was an opportunity lost. Steele declined an interview request.

"This was absolutely for the best of intentions and that's why it was literally the biggest disappointment I had from all my time at OPIC," said Mosbacher, the agency head from 2005 to 2009. "What seemed to be a home run, a win-win, just didn't work out the way any of us had hoped."

In all, OPIC handed out US$77 million of the US$217 million approved in Liberia.

The last loan came under the current president and CEO, Elizabeth Littlefield.

When OPIC approved the final US$90-million loan in 2011, it did not conduct an onsite environmental and social due diligence visit for a project in a country haunted by a decade-long civil war and history of abuses against women.

OPIC's own Office of Accountability questioned the agency's review process in one of its few internal investigations ever conducted.

The job managing that internal watchdog office has been vacant since September.

Buchanan's senior management had no prior experience in the rubber sector or in operating a commercial venture in Liberia, the accountability office said.

The agency approved the loans despite incomplete background reviews involving key figures at OPIC and Buchanan Renewables.

Littlefield called the report "unprecedented" and said OPIC was instituting reforms.

For the labourers lured by Buchanan's promises, the project's collapse left a painful legacy.

"The workers are still grieving today," said Alfred Brownell, executive director of Green Advocates International, a legal advocacy group in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. "The only thing Liberia got was the massive cutting down of rubber trees."


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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

[biofuelwatch] Biomass scam in Liberia after $90m US Govt loan

Backed by US loans, a company crafted a plan to convert aged rubber trees into biomass chips

Associated Press - 26 January 2015 14:14-05:00

On paper, the pitch was simple.

Buchanan Renewables, a green energy company backed by the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation, would convert Liberia to "The World's First Biomass Driven Economy."

The company's blueprint, detailed in a 15-page brochure produced in June 2011, portrayed the plan as a boon for the environment and economy.

Buchanan Renewables, a predecessor of Buchanan Renewable Energy, would salvage nonproducing rubber trees and use them as fuel to power a needy nation. Liberia would become ground zero for the global green movement; local workers and farmers would profit.

The brochure detailed the step-by-step process to bring this vision alive: felling aged rubber trees and replanting new ones; chipping and grounding trunks, roots and branches into biomass feedstock; exporting some woodchips to European utilities for co-firing with coal; using other grindings to fuel the company's planned power plant in Liberia.

"Let There Be Light," the company said in a report listing Buchanan CEO James Steele as a contact.

In Washington, OPIC was sold.

The project "will help create a new export market for Liberia while rehabilitating the country's iconic rubber industry," said OPIC's president and CEO, Elizabeth Littlefield, when the agency approved the final loan, worth $90 million, in 2011.

Yet Buchanan's vision, and the U.S. government's investment, collapsed amid a series of questionable business decisions by the company and questionable oversight by OPIC. In the end, Buchanan never built the power plant in Liberia.

On the ground in Liberia, the company dismissed 600 workers and left the country amid complaints from workers of injuries and, at times, sexual abuse.

In the end, the project's legacy is one of fields of empty trees.

<possibly the final sentence should read "In the end, the project's legacy is one of fields empty of trees.>


Backed by US loans, a company crafted a plan to convert aged rubber trees into biomass chips


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A new study has shown that Brazil's Soy Moratorium -- an industry-led pledge not to clear Amazon rainforest for soy production -- has had incredible benefits.  But there's also bad news.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

The study, undertaken by U.S. and Brazilian researchers and published in the leading journal Science, was led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The team found that, prior to the Moratorium's commencement in 2006, about 30% of the soy planted in the Amazon directly replaced rainforest. 

That's a huge impact because Brazil will soon be the world's biggest soy producer.  Much of Brazil's soy is exported to China and Europe.

In fact, the impact of soy on the Amazon was even greater than Gibbs and colleagues suggest, because a lot of soy farmers bought up Amazon cattle ranches to expand their farms, pushing the ranchers deeper into the rainforest and thereby promoting more deforestation for ranching.

But after the Moratorium, the impact on the Amazon from soy fell sharply.  By 2014, less than 1% of soy replaced rainforest, according to Gibbs and colleagues. 

While this is a tremendous accomplishment, the Moratorium doesn't apply to Brazil's biodiversity-rich Cerrado, a vast but imperiled savanna-woodland that's a global biodiversity hotspot.  There, soy expansion continues to be a major driver of habitat loss.

Some in Brazil -- particularly elements of the powerful soy lobby -- are arguing that the Soy Moratorium should be dropped, because Brazil's government is effective enough, they say, to limit soy expansion into environmentally important areas.

But the study by Gibbs and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite.  They found abundant evidence of illegal deforestation in the Amazon, in areas such as Legal Reserves.  This suggests that the government alone can't halt illegal deforestation without help from major land-using industries such as soy producers. 

Hence, rather than being canceled, the Soy Moratorium should remain in force and should even be expanded -- to include the rapidly vanishing Cerrado as well.

Let's hope that sanity prevails in Brazil.  Those combating the Soy Moratorium will find themselves facing major boycotts and public shaming if they kill off one of the best industry-led environmental initiatives in the world.


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