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Bioenergy > Issues > Environment > Biodiversity

Note: See also the BioenergyWiki page on Wildlife

Biodiversity refers to the level of diversity among the species living within a given ecosystem or more generally in the biosphere. This applies to every phylum of organisms. It is generally agreed that a high number of species is a good indicator of biodiversity, but the existence of rare or very sensitive species, even within in a simple ecosystem, represents a major indicator as well.

Biodiversity decreases each time a species disappears from a given ecosystem. The reasons for disappearance are many, and include destruction of habitats, climatic/ecosystem changes, food web modifications, illegal hunting and/or trade and overexploitation (of fisheries, for instance) are the most common.

The state of biodiversity is closely followed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) through the Red List of Threatened Species.

Orangutan habitat has been cleared to create oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. There is concern that orangutans could go extinct if measures are not taken immediately to protect them and their forest habitat.


Biodiversity and biofuels

Concerns have been raised about the impacts of cultivation of biofuel crops, notably oil palm, on biodiversity. (See, for example, palm oil.) Biofuel crop production can impact biodiversity through means such as:

  • clearing native habitat;
  • introducing invasive alien species that can supplant native species; and
  • displacing agricultural activities into new areas, such as forests, which are then indirectly converted as a result of increased demand for biofuels.


Endangered leopard in Botswana's Okavango Delta. The Okavango is one of the world's largest inland deltas, supports an astounding array of wildlife, and could be highly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change.
  • Potential Impacts of Biofuels on Biodiversity - Paper prepared by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
    • Excerpts include:
      • "There currently appears to be no clear scientific justification, either from a climate change mitigation or biodiversity perspective, for broad scale policies that promote biofuel production such as production subsidies, import tariffs or minimum requirements for the use of biofuels in transport fuels. Rather, policies, subsidies and tax incentives would need to be selective for each biofuel system so that only environmentally and socio-economically sound biofuels are promoted."(para. 53)
      • "Criteria, standards and certification could be developed to help identify and promote biodiversity-friendly biofuels and these could draw on existing approaches and efforts."(para. 55)
  • At the CBD COP9 in Bonn in 2008, it was decided to collect material on bioenergy and biodiversity to prepare for a more detailed discussion at the 14th SBSTTA meeting (May 2010), and the COP10 in November 2010 (Japan)






High elevation rainforest in the Marojejy region of Madagascar has one of the highest rates of endemic plant and animal biodiversity in the world.



  • Is Bioenergy Expansion Harmful to Wildlife? 3 April 2012 by ScienceDaily: "Despite the predicted environmental benefits of biofuels, converting land to grow bioenergy crops may harm native wildlife. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig have developed a way to study the effects of increased energy crop cultivation on farmland bird populations."
    • "'The Skylark is an indicator species for agricultural areas because it occupies many habitats of the wider countryside around the globe, breeds on the ground within fields and feeds mostly on insects' notes lead researcher, Jan Engel. 'Improving the habitat suitability for Skylark, accordingly, would improve conservation of natural vegetation, insects, and other ground breeding farmland bird species.'"
    • "Mr. Engel and his colleagues developed a computer model that evaluated the habitat requirements of Skylark in a variety of bioenergy cultivation scenarios. The study, published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy, found that bioenergy crop expansion will not harm Skylark populations if field sizes are low, many crop types are present, and small natural areas, known as Integrated Biodiversity Areas, are included within the landscape. [1]
  • Biofuel Research Suffers From Gaps, 20 January 2012 by Chemical & Engineering News: "After a review of a decade’s worth of biofuels research, scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency have concluded that significant knowledge gaps will likely prevent experts from adequately assessing biofuels’ full environmental impacts....While researchers have paid substantial attention to greenhouse gas emissions, the new study says, they have focused little on how the production and use of biofuels affects biodiversity and human health."
    • "'The last 10 years or so of research may have left us short of understanding what biofuels really may do to global economies, the environment, and society,' says Caroline Ridley, an ecologist with the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, in Arlington, Va., who led the study."
    • "The team found that the most common topics, with a few hundred papers each, were fuel production, feedstock production, and greenhouse gas emissions. Near the bottom of the list, 80 studies examined how biofuel production affects biodiversity, for example how local species fare after farmers clear large stretches of land to grow corn, switchgrass, palm oil, or other biofuel feedstocks. And only 15 studied the human health impacts of increasing levels of air pollutants produced by burning biofuel ethanol."
    • "The team also found that researchers have focused largely on the environmental consequences in the Northern Hemisphere even though regions in the Southern Hemisphere, such as Indonesia, will probably grow most of the feedstock crops...."
    • "Ridley and her team warn that these holes in biofuels research mean that expanded biofuels use could lead to unanticipated problems. As a result, she suggests her team’s results could offer a useful guide to decision makers in allotting research funds...."[2]
    • Access the study, Biofuels: Network Analysis of the Literature Reveals Key Environmental and Economic Unknowns


  • First EU sustainability schemes for biofuels get the go-ahead, 19 July 2011 press release by the European Commission: "In order to receive government support or count towards mandatory national renewable energy targets, biofuels used in the EU, whether locally produced or imported, have to comply with sustainability criteria. These criteria aim at preventing the conversion of areas of high biodiversity and high carbon stock for the production of raw materials for biofuels. In practice this means that biofuels made of crops that have been grown on land that used to be rainforest or natural grassland with a unique ecosystem cannot be considered as sustainable. In addition, the greenhouse gas emissions over the whole production chain need to be at least 35% lower compared to fossil fuels. That threshold will increase over time."
    • "Companies can choose whether to demonstrate compliance with these sustainability requirements through national systems or by joining a voluntary scheme which is recognised by the Commission."
    • "After a detailed assessment made by the Commission and various improvements the following schemes were recognised:
      • ISCC (German (government financed) scheme covering all types of biofuels)
      • Bonsucro EU (Roundtable initiative for sugarcane based biofuels, focus on Brazil)
      • RTRS EU RED (Roundtable initiative for soy based biofuels, focus on Argentina and Brazil)
      • RSB EU RED (Roundtable initiative covering all types of biofuels)
      • 2BSvs (French industry scheme covering all types of biofuels)
      • RSBA (Industry scheme for Abengoa covering their supply chain)
      • Greenergy (Industry scheme for Greenergy covering sugar cane ethanol from Brazil)
    • "The Commission is currently discussing with other voluntary schemes how these can also improve their standard in order to meet the sustainability requirements for biofuels."[4]
  • Sustainable Biofuel Crops Project - Final Scientific and Progress Report (PDF File), 31 March 2011 by Conservation International: "The three-year Sustainable Biofuel Crops Project...was launched in early 2008" supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. The overall goal of the project was to support the development of a sustainable global biofuels industry by ensuring that biofuel crop production is not a threat to biodiversity."
    • "The Sustainable Biofuel Crops Project included three components...and was implemented by teams working in the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Suriname."
    • "Major achievements of the Sustainable Biofuel Crops Project include:"
      • "[A]nalysis of areas of risk, and opportunity, for feedstock production...[in relation to] areas of importance for carbon sequestration and storage, water provisioning, biodiversity conservation, and staple food production".
      • Launch of the "Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for Business website, which provides key decision-makers access to critical information on biodiversity priority sites to inform the decision-making processes and address any potential biodiversity impacts."
      • "[A] carbon stock assessment, ecosystem services study, and biodiversity survey in and around a protected peat swamp surrounded by areas zoned for oil palm".
    • "These results, and others outlined in the full report, have helped fill a critical need for data and information to facilitate good decisions on biofuel feedstock production, and models of successful strategies to produce feedstocks more sustainably on the ground."
    • Download the report, Sustainable Biofuel Crops Project - Final Scientific and Progress Report (PDF File)
  • Palm Oil Plantations Embrace Biodiversity In Attempt To Change Environmentally Destructive Reputation, 20 January 2011 by The Huffington Post: "Palm oil plantations carry a history of controversy. The cash crop is used for fuel and food, but at the same time, it destroys rainforests. Also, compared to diverse forests, monoculture plantations do not trap greenhouse gases as efficiently."
    • "These challenges are no more visible than on the United International Enterprises Estate, located in the Majung District of Malaysia. The plantation has over 1.4 million trees. Unfortunately, they are all the same."
    • "A nature reserve has been created on the plantation, populated by rare trees. The manager's goal is to increase the plant diversity to 500 plant variations."
    • "The plantation is the first to be certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil Production, a group working to make palm oil more eco-friendly."[7]


  • Biofuel grasslands better for birds than ethanol staple corn, 6 January 2011 press release by Michigan State University: "Developing biofuel from native perennials instead of corn in the Midwest’s rolling grasslands would better protect threatened bird populations, Michigan State University research suggests."
    • "Federal mandates and market forces both are expected to promote rising biofuel production, MSU biologist Bruce Robertson says, but the environmental consequences of turning more acreage over to row crops for fuel are a serious concern."
    • "'Native perennial grasses might provide an opportunity to produce biomass in ways that are compatible with the conservation of biodiversity and important ecosystem services such as pest control,' Robertson said...."
    • "In the first such empirical comparison and the first to simultaneously study grassland bird communities across habitat scales, Robertson and colleagues found that bugs and the birds that feed on them thrive more in mixed prairie grasses than in corn. Almost twice as many species made their homes in grasses, while plots of switchgrass, a federally designated model fuel crop, fell between the two in their ability to sustain biodiversity."
    • "The larger the plot of any type, researchers found, the greater the concentration of birds supported. But if grasslands offer conservation and biofuel opportunities, Robertson said, the biodiversity benefits could decrease as biofuel grass feedstocks are bred and cultivated for commercial uniformity."[8]
    • Read the paper, Perennial biomass feedstocks enhance avian diversity (PDF file)
  • Scientists Spar With Defender of Palm Oil and Pulp Firms, 29 October 2010 by New York Times' Dot Earth Blog: "A dozen scientists focused on the diversity and health of tropical forests released a letter this week describing what they say are deceptive statements made by two groups working on behalf of palm oil, timber and pulp interests. In the document, 'An Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests,' the scientists strongly criticize the groups, World Growth International (WGI), a nonprofit organization, and International Trade Strategies Global (ITS), a consultancy on international trade issues. Here are a couple of their complaints:"
    • "A recent technical report by ITS concluded that 'There is no evidence of substantial deforestation' in Papua New Guinea, a conclusion strongly at variance with quantitative, remote-sensing studies of forest conversion published in the refereed scientific literature. Reports from WGI and ITS routinely claim that newly established oil palm plantations sequester carbon more rapidly than do old-growth rainforests."
    • "This claim, while technically correct, is a distraction from the reality that mature oil palm plantations store much less carbon than do old-growth rainforests (plantations store just 40-80 tons of biomass aboveground, half of which is carbon, compared to 200-400 tons of aboveground biomass in old-growth rainforests)."[9]
Quoted from Bioenergy choices could dramatically change Midwest bird diversity: "In a 2010 article published in PNAS, Claudio Gratton and Tim Meehan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calculated the impact on bird biodiversity of planting millions of acres of marginal land with biofuel feedstock. Left: Brown shows areas with species declines of up to 50 percent on marginal land planted with corn for biofuels. Right: Blue shows species increases of up to 200 percent if marginal lands are planted with diverse grasslands as biofuel feedstocks. Graphic: courtesy Claudio Gratton and Tim Meehan"
  • Bioenergy choices could dramatically change Midwest bird diversity, 8 October 2010 by David Tenenbaum: "Ambitious plans to expand acreage of bioenergy crops could have a major impact on birds in the Upper Midwest, according to a study published today (Oct. 4) in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)"
    • "The study compared two approaches to bioenergy feedstocks: monocultures of annuals, such as corn, or perennial cultures of prairie plants and grasses."
    • "The computer model that Meehan and Gratton developed showed that planting almost 21 million acres of perennial crops for bioenergy could increase bird biodiversity by 25 percent to 100 percent in some locales. The increase would be especially high in places like central Illinois and Iowa, where row crops are now dominant."
    • "Land-use decisions are typically made based on a single factor such as crop productivity or profitability, Gratton says, but in fact, changing how land is used usually has multiple impacts. As a result, he says, 'People are starting to think about bundles of effects, on water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, or on beneficial insects that need certain habitats to survive.'"[11]
  • Kenyan Environmentalists oppose biofuel project, 21 June 2010 by Rosalia Omungo: "The Dakatcha area which is a breeding ground for Clarke's weaver, a bird's species that is only found in two places on earth, Kenya and Arabuko-Sokoke forest in South Africa has been earmarked for destruction to pave way for commercial farming of Jatropha plant as an alternative source of energy."
    • "Executive Director of Nature Kenya, Paul Matiku said "Nature Kenya oppossed the growing of the plant by an Italian investor under the name Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, because this plant is poisonous it has been banned in South Africa, and Australia and declared poisonous to humans and likely to produce more greenhouse gases."
    • "He added that the local people of Dakatcha, the local conservationists, national and global conservation community is obliged to reject the growing of the plant for it does not help people, destroys biodiversity, removes invaluable ecological services and is not economically viable."[13]
  • For Gulf, Biofuels Are Worse Than Oil Spill , 17 June 2010 editorial by Investor's Business Daily: "Our growing addiction to alternative energy was killing aquatic life in the Gulf long before the Deepwater Horizon spill. Abandoning oil will kill more and also release more carbon dioxide into the air."
    • "Before the first gallon gushed from Deepwater Horizon, there existed an 8,500 square mile 'dead zone' below the Mississippi River Delta....Hypoxia, or oxygen depletion, caused by agricultural runoff...has been on an upward trend as acreage for corn destined to become ethanol increases."
    • The OECD "recently stated in a report: 'When acidification, fertilizer use, biodiversity loss and toxicity of agricultural pesticides are taken into account, the overall impact of ethanol and biodiesel can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel.'"[14]
  • The Scientists' Letter on the Copenhagen Commitment for Tropical Forests, April 2010 by the Union of Concerned Scientists on behalf of over 200 scientists: "The Scientists' Letter on the Copenhagen Commitment for Tropical Forests is a letter asking members of Congress to keep the commitment made by the United States in Copenhagen on December 16, 2009. There the United States promised $1 billion over 3 years for tropical forest conservation."
    • "Tropical forests contain half of all carbon stored in terrestrial vegetation, and clearing and degradation of tropical forests constitutes about 15% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions. REDD+ [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest degradation in Developing countries] can greatly strengthen measures to reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, and provide other human benefits."
    • "REDD+ is an inexpensive solution relative to alternatives such as industrial energy efficiency or solar or nuclear power and an immediate solution too — $20 billion could cut emissions by half a billion tons and do so by 2020."
  • Flat-headed cat endangered by palm oil, April 2010 by MNN: "According to National Geographic, a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE has indicated that the flat-headed cat's habitat is rapidly being transformed into vast biofuel plantations."
    • "Native to the swampy peat forests of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the cats are nocturnal, elusive, tiny (they typically weigh between 3-5 pounds) and difficult to observe."
    • "Almost 70 percent of the area that historically provided good habitats for the flat-headed cat has already been converted into plantations, mostly for the purpose of growing biofuel. Furthermore, their remaining range has become fragmented, likely making it difficult for remote populations of the cat to breed with one another."
    • "The cat's predicament is not unique in the region where it lives. Tropical Southeast Asia has both one of the highest rates of biodiversity and highest rates of deforestation worldwide. Much of that deforestation is for the purpose of planting palms, a cash crop destined for the biofuel market."[16]
  • 'Invasive' biofuel crops require monitoring and mitigation measures, 21 January 2010 by ENN/European Consumers Bioenergy Division: "Biofuel crops will impact on biodiversity and natural ecosystems unless tightly controlled, says a panel of European experts."
    • The Bern Convention "adopted a recommendation on potentially invasive alien plants being used as biofuel crops (Recommendation 141, 2009). They warn that some biofuel crops are able to escape as pests, and in so doing impact on native biodiversity. As rural communities plan to grow more biofuel crops, the likelihood of new and harmful 'invasions' will increase apace."
    • "Therefore the Council of Europe made recommendations, which are legally binding on member states:
1. Avoid the use of biofuel crops already recognised as invasive;
2. Carry out risk assessments for new species and genotypes;
3. Monitor the spread of biofuel crops into natural habitats and their effects on native species;
4. Mitigate the spread and impact on native biodiversity wherever biofuel crops escape cultivation."[17]


  • IDB releases new version of Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard, 11 September 2009 by InterAmerican Development Bank: "The Inter-American Development Bank has released a new version of its Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard, which will enable users to better anticipate the impacts of potential biofuel projects on sensitive issues such as indigenous rights, carbon emissions from land use change, and food security."
    • "The first version of the Scorecard, an interactive, web-based tool that was released a year ago, addressed 23 key variables including greenhouse gas emissions, water management, biodiversity and poverty reduction. The IDB subsequently held five regional meetings to solicit feedback on the Scorecard and began collecting and reviewing hundreds of comments and suggestions submitted by outside experts."
    • "The new version of the Scorecard includes a spatial analysis tool that enables users to quickly access existing Geographic Information System (GIS) data regarding areas for biodiversity preservation. Future versions will add data layers to show the spatial dimensions of categories including water scarcity, cultural sites and high carbon sequestration areas, among others."[18]


  • Biofuel Plantations on Tropical Forestlands Are Bad for the Climate and Biodiversity, Study Finds, 1 December 2008, by Business Wire: A study in the journal Conservation Biology found that converting tropical rainforests to biofuel plantations will significantly increase carbon emissions and threaten biodiversity.
    • "The study reveals that it would take at least 75 years for the carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion. And if the original habitat was carbon-rich peatland, the carbon balance would take more than 600 years. On the other hand, planting biofuels on degraded Imperata grasslands instead of tropical rain forests would lead to a net removal of carbon in 10 years, the authors found." [21]
    • "'It’s a huge contradiction to clear tropical rain forests to grow crops for so-called "environmentally friendly" fuels,' said co-author Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Center, Malaysia. 'This is not only an issue in South East Asia – in Latin America forests are being cleared for soy production which is even less efficient at biofuel production compared to oil palm. Reducing deforestation is a much more effective way for countries to reduce climate change while also meeting their obligations to protect biodiversity.'" [22]

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