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How Saving the Polar Bears Endangers the Rhinos

Animals like the Sumatran rhino are threatened less by climate change than by the measures being taken to prevent it, specifically the mad rush for biofuels.

by
Michael Miersch

Bio

May 27, 2008 - 12:50 am

Is climate change leading to a diminution of biodiversity?

The question is a matter of dispute. A 2007 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that one-fifth of all animal and plant species will die off as a result of global warming. Other scientists, such as the zoologist Josef H. Reichholf, have strongly contested the claim. “A warmer climate will certainly not lead to any major pattern of extinctions,” Reichholf says. “The really major danger for biodiversity comes from the continuing destruction of the tropical rain forests.” Two well-known findings from the natural sciences run counter to the thesis that warming will bring about mass extinctions. Firstly, moving from the poles to the equator, biodiversity in fact constantly increases; the warmer it is, the richer the diversity of life forms. The fewest number of species is to be found at the poles and in cold mountainous regions. Secondly, the warm periods in the course of the earth’s history have always been those that are richest in the diversity of species, whereas the number of plant and animal species declined during the ice ages.

There is, however, one aspect of global warming that does in fact endanger the existence of many species: namely, the promotion of biofuels in the name of “climate protection.” Since fuels made from canola, reeds, sugar cane, or oil palm only give off as much carbon dioxide when burned as the plants themselves already contained (and hence are CO2-neutral), they are regarded as environment- or “climate-friendly.” But as a result of the fixation of environmental policy on climate, the secondary effects of cultivating these crops have gotten ignored. In order to meet the European demand for biofuels, companies in Indonesia and Malaysia are burning down rain forests and planting oil palms in the enormous spaces thus cleared for cultivation. As a consequence, hundreds of rare species — among them, the Sumatran tiger, the orangutan, and the Sumatran rhino — are losing their habitats. European hysteria about the climate is having the paradoxical effect of destroying a treasure trove of biodiversity.

The German government and the European Commission have proposed to establish a “sustainability decree” that will assure that only such biofuels are promoted as come from sustainable agriculture. The 5,000 delegates at the biodiversity conference currently underway in Bonn are also supposed to discuss the matter. “We have to achieve internationally recognized minimum standards as quickly as possible,” German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel has said, “so that we can really effectively prevent the wrong paths being taken to arrive at the right goal of expanding the use of bio-energy.” One can only hope that there will still be some rain forest left in Indonesia and Malaysia by the time this comes about.

The forests of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and the Malaysian peninsula are some of the earth’s richest in plant and animal life. Even today, researchers are constantly discovering new plant and animal species in them. But, unfortunately, the remaining forest areas in these regions are being cleared more quickly than anywhere else in the world. The biofuels boom has given massive impulse to the plantation sector of the local economies. One of the animals that could disappear forever as a result is the smallest of the five existing species of rhinoceros: the Sumatran rhino. There are only around 300 specimens of the primitive-looking animal left. In captivity, they are extremely difficult to care for. Most attempts to breed them have ended in failure. Only the Cincinnati Zoo, where two healthy rhino calves were born, has had any success. But such modest results will not be able to stop the hairy brown rhinos from dying out.

Already before the biofuels boom, the land dedicated to oil palm plantations in the Malaysian part of Borneo was growing by 8% per year — this at a time when the plant oil was only being processed for margarine, detergents, and cosmetics. With the additional demand for fuels, the pace at which land was being converted rapidly increased. Malaysia and Indonesia are planning to extend the land used for the oil palm plantations by up to 12% per year. By the year 2020, Malaysia plans to be cultivating oil palms on over 12 million acres of land; Indonesia, on over 40 million. Time is growing short for the Sumatran rhino.

The overall effect of oil palm cultivation on the climate shows just how absurd it is to expect to “save” the climate by using biofuels. In order to acquire more land for plantations, the last peat moss forests are being cleared. In the process, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere. Around 4% of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere come from the destruction of the Indonesian peat forests. Indonesia is thus the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the USA and China. The slash-and-burn method of forest clearing is an especially important source of emissions. Again and again enormous stretches of forest are being torched. In some years, over a billion tons of CO2 are released as a consequence.

Michael Miersch is one of Germany's most prominent writers on ecological matters. He is the coauthor, along with Dirk Maxeiner, of the new book Biokost und Ökokult [Organic Food and the Cult of Ecology]. A selection of writings in English by Michael Miersch and Dirk Maxeiner can be found on the authors' homepage here. The above article first appeared in German in the May issue of the magazine Cicero. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.
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