Coconut conundrum

Can coco-diesel stop the super-typhoons?

Published January 17, 2007 6:29PM (EST)

Exhibiting a severe case of Brazil-envy, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo signed the Biofuel Act of 2006 into law last week, mandating that all diesel fuel and gasoline used in the country include set percentages of biodiesel and ethanol. The goal: energy security. Just like Brazil.

With one key difference. In Brazil, ethanol is manufactured from a sugar cane, and biodiesel is made mostly from soybeans. In the Philippines, the magic feedstock is coconut.

There are a lot of coconuts in the Philippines. But 2006 was a rough year for coconut farmers. The Philippine islands were ravaged by a string of super-typhoons, devastating production. Now, reports Biopact, legislator Juan Miguel Zubiri, the author of the Biofuel Act, is suggesting that profits from the biofuel program be allocated toward the replanting of coconut plantations in the affected areas.

Biopact frames Zubiri's suggestion in the context of a climate change paradox. The lack of hurricanes in North America this past summer has subdued, for the moment, the clamor of those who are eager to draw a direct connection between Hurricane Katrina and global warming. But while the skies were calm in the Gulf of Mexico, typhoons bigger than any in memory ransacked Southeast Asia. Biopact firmly believes that the replacement of fossil fuels with biofuels will help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. But for that to happen in the Philippines, the coconut trees that have already been destroyed by climate change (theoretically) will have to be replanted!

But that's only the first part of the paradox. Coconuts are an important source of food in South Asia, and the export of copra, or dried coconut meat, is a big industry. If coco-diesel production is ramped up, while at the same time copra production is maintained at current levels, that can only mean, as the executive director of the Asia & Pacific Coconut Community declares, happily, that South Asia must plant even more coconuts. That, in turn, may mean dire consequences for the remaining rain forests of Southeast Asia, and possibly, even with more production, price hikes for coconut diet staples. The spike in corn prices in the U.S. is raising concerns about a food vs. fuel showdown in North America. Could the same dynamic be set to play out in the Philippines?

Will energy security result in less food security? Will the net gain, as measured by greenhouse gas emissions, from burning coco-diesel instead of crude oil outweigh the loss of biodiversity and rain forest caused by expanding coconut plantations?

The same questions are being asked everywhere, across the globe. They are no longer rhetorical. The Philippines is not alone in aiming to emulate Brazil. Scores of countries are instituting biofuel incentives, and in every region, local crops are being evaluated for their potential energy production. Hang on for a wild ride.

UPDATE: Chalk this one up into the "learn something new every hour" category. Biopact responds, telling me something I didn't know about coconuts. They don't grow in the rainforest.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: It keeps getting better. Now, someone who has done anthropological work in Southeast Asia chimes in with a rebuttal to Biopact's points about coconut plantations and the rainforest.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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