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Biofuels: EU tackles indirect land use changes

A recent fly in the ointment for agriculturally-produced biofuels has been efforts by various researchers and government bodies to tabulate CO2 reductions for the whole lifecycle of various types of biofuels. These lifecycle assessments often favor some biofuels over others.

Businesspeople involved in ramping up production at biofuel companies tend to bristle at the mention of the phrase “indirect land use changes.” Basically, the idea is that demand for biofuels will put land into agricultural production that is currently fallow. If the non-agricultural land has trees or grasslands on it, clearing the land takes away a natural CO2 sink, and that basically ruins the math behind the CO2 reduction from the resulting biofuels.

The concepts behind land use changes can be a little hard to understand, but it’s easy to follow the take-up of the idea by merely tracking the wave of outraged press releases when governments include ILUC in their renewable fuels calculations.

In February of 2008, Science published a paper that kicked off the debate. Researcher David Tilman and colleagues wrote “Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.” You can get a sense of the excited responses from agricultural biofuel proponents by reading the letters on Science’s website, or you can check out the blog posting by the New Fuels Alliance.

From there, the land use change debate was picked up by the California Legislature in its work on the state’s renewable fuels standard. The state ended up including the impact of land use changes in apportioning the mandates of which biofuels would be most favored. You can read the teeth gnashing when the law passed last April at the Biotech Industry Organization.

And of course, there is a Federal Renewable Fuels Standard. In February’s second generation of the standard, land use changes are incorporated into the mandates. You can read the dismay of the members of the Renewable Fuels Association. Arguments against using ILUC in biofuels mandates are two-fold. One, they discourage investments in biofuels development when things were just getting interesting. And the methodologies and calculations are said to be suspect.

Now the issue of land use changes has zoomed across the pond to the EU. Currently, the EU’s version of a renewable fuels standard calls for 5.6% of all transportation fuels to come from renewable sources. There has been a push to increase the standard to 10%. But research by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that raising the standard would create land use changes that outweigh the CO2 benefit from renewables. The researchers further suggest that Europe drop its tariffs on imported ethanol made from sugar in Brazil, saying it was the most efficient biofuel. To learn how the measurements were made, you can read the report.

Of course, as with any topic that uses the word “indirect,” the one thing that all sides agree on is that more research needs to be done.

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