Friday, June 28, 2013

Biofuel boom could accelerate warming in tropics

Wagdy Sawahel in The large-scale conversion of land for biofuel farming could make some tropical regions even warmer, according to a study. Researchers from the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), assessed the impact on the climate of increased biofuel production by modelling two scenarios: one where trees are chopped down to plant biofuel crops and one where forests are maintained and fertilisers and irrigation are used to intensify the production of biofuel crops.

They found that both scenarios have a negligible impact on global warming. For example, in the first scenario the additional cropland reflects more sunlight, counterbalancing the warming associated with fewer trees and higher greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, in both scenarios, increasing the proportion of biofuels used would reduce warming by using fewer fossil fuel-based energy sources. But their findings also point to significant regional differences.

Willow Hallgren, a researcher at MIT's Center for Global Change Science, tells SciDev.Net that the real significance of the study is that it reveals that energy policies promoting large-scale biofuel plantations as a way of cutting carbon emissions will exacerbate existing warming trends in the tropics. Hallgren says that the study differs from others looking at the climate impacts of biofuels because it incorporates "numerous 'real world' determinants of where and how much biofuel crops are grown".

The areas where this regional warming would occur are located in the Amazon basin and in central and western Africa, she says.  The policy in which the biofuel expansion is embedded determines how much the local climate will warm, says Hallgren. "If you protect tropical forests, you greatly lessen this regional warming, which would likely have significant ecological, economic and social impact on people living in those regions," she says...

African grasslands, plus baobab, shot by Harvey Barrison, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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