Land Use Changes

Quoting the European Commission (EC): While biofuels are important in helping the EU meet its greenhouse gas reductions targets, biofuel production typically takes place on cropland which was previously used for other agriculture such as growing food or feed. Since this agricultural production is still necessary, it may be partly displaced to previously non-cropland such as grasslands and forests. This process is known as indirect land use change (ILUC).

Indirect land use change risks negating the greenhouse gas savings that result from increased biofuels because grasslands and forests typically absorb high levels of CO2. By converting these land types to cropland, atmospheric CO2 levels may increase.

New rules to reduce indirect land use change

In 2015 new rules came into force which amend the current legislation on biofuels – specifically the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive - to reduce the risk of indirect land use change and to prepare the transition towards advanced biofuels. The amendment:

  • limits the share of biofuels from crops grown on agricultural land that can be counted towards the 2020 renewable energy targets to 7%
  • sets an indicative 0.5% target for advanced biofuels as a reference for national targets which will be set by EU countries in 2017
  • harmonises the list of feedstocks for biofuels across the EU whose contribution would count double towards the 2020 target of 10% for renewable energy in transport
  • requires that biofuels produced in new installations emit at least 60% fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels
  • introduces stronger incentives for the use of renewable electricity in transport (by counting it more towards the 2020 target of 10% for renewable energy use in transport)
  • includes a number of additional reporting obligations for the fuel providers, EU countries and the European Commission

Further information from the EC.

It has been suggested that growing energy crops on agricultural land may displace existing food-crop production, causing land use change in another location. This Indirect Land Use Change (iLUC) might occur in a neighbouring area or even in another country hundreds of miles away, where an area of high biodiversity (and high levels of "stored carbon") might be cleared to make more land available for growing food crops.

In the US, this concept was the subject of a paper by Timothy Searchinger et al, Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change published in Science in February 2008 [Vol. 319 no. 5867 pp. 1238-1240]. It has been suggested that increased use of rape seed oil for biodiesel production in Europe could reduce the amount available for the food industry, leading in turn to increased demands for imports of palm oil (potentially increasing deforestation in producer countries).

Since 2008, there has been much debate about the assumptions made and methods used to establish the impact of Indirect Land Use Change. However, there is a concensus that land use change is very complex and affected by a wide range of factors, not only biofuels. Some recent studies have cast doubts on the validity of iLUC models.

In September 2012, a paper by Jesper Hedal Kløverpris and Steffen Mueller published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment suggested that the current methodology for iLUC calculations may considerably overestimate the climate impact of biofuels and a more sophisticated approach is required. See Baseline time accounting: Considering global land use dynamics when estimating the climate impact of indirect land use change caused by biofuels.

See also iLUC Prevention Study - Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development (February 2015).

In November 2014, a paper published by B. A. Babcock and Z. Iqbal, Centre for Agiculture and Rural Development, Iowa State University, US Using Recent Land Use Changes to Validate Land Use Change Models looked at real world data on land change in recent years. The study concluded that “…the primary land use change response of the world’s farmers in the last 10 years has been to use available land resources more efficiently rather than to expand the amount of land brought into production."

This study also found that a number of key crop-producing countries and regions, including the European Union, Canada, United States, Russia, China, India, and Ukraine, had “negligible or negative” cropland expansion during the past decade, and thus “should be presumed to not have converted pasture or forest to crops in response to biofuel-induced higher prices.”


International Standards for iLUC

In April 2015, The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials launched a draft standard:

RSB Low iLUC Risk Biomass Criteria and Compliance Indicators


Evolution of the iLUC Debate and EU Biofuels Policy

See the Biofuels Legislation page for updates to the EU proposals to amend the RED/FQD to reflect public and political concerns over iLUC.

iLUC factors in the EC proposal (October 2012) to minimise the climate impact of biofuels

The directive amending the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive (2015/1513), established by the EU in September 2015, demands the inclusion of indirect land use change (iLUC) factors in reporting by fuel suppliers and Member States of greenhouse gas savings of biofuels and bioliquids. The added Annex VII of the Renewable Energy Directivve includes estimated indirect land-use change emissions from biofuels (gCO2eq/MJ) as follows:

  • Cereals and other starch rich crops, 12
  • Sugars, 13
  • Oil crops, 55

Other feedstocks (e.g. residues and wastes) were considered to have a value of 0. iLUC values were not applied for feedstocks where direct land use change emissions have already been calculated.

The proposals allow for iLUC factors to be added, disaggregated or amended to allow for new feedstocks, such as energy crops, or more detailed scientific data.

European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety: Workshop on Sustainable Biofuels: addressing indirect land use change (iLUC) (February 2013)

View presentations by organisations represented at the workshop including European Biodiesel Board, ePure, COPA-COGECA, Transport & Environment, Oxfam, Roundtable on sustainable Biofuels, JRC, International Council on Clean Transportation, International Food Policy Research Institute, OECD, Air Resources Board, California, and Imperial College London

European Parliament Workshop on Biofuels and Indirect Land Use Change (January 2012)

In anticipation of the release of the European Commission's impact assessment on 'indirect land use change (iLUC) related to biofuels and bioliquids on greenhouse gas emissions and addressing ways to minimize it', the Coordinators of the ENVI Committee organised a workshop on this issue (view workshop proceedings - including presentations, discussion & conclusions). The workshop in January 2012 consisted of different presentations and an exchange of views with Members and established experts in the area of biofuels and iLUC.

EBTP Consensus Paper on iLUC

In October 2011 an iLUC paper was produced by the former WG5 of the EBTP (now WG4 Policy and Sustainability). In the context of the discussion around indirect land use change for biofuels, the European Biofuels Technology Platform holds the view that there is an opportunity for the EU to signal its support to policies that further enhance the deployment of advanced biofuels.

EBTP Views on iLUC (74 Kb)

Also see the pdf2016 EBTP Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) (7.5 Mb)


Issues surrounding the complexity of iLUC modelling

See the ETIP Bioenergy Reports Database for recent papers and reports on iLUC research and policy implementation

In September 2013, EBB released a study carried out by Air Improvement Resource, (S&T)2 Consultants, and the University of Illinois. The study Land Use Change Greenhouse Gas Emissions of European Biofuel Policies Utilizing the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) Model showed that iLUC effects calculated by the GTAP model were far lower than those calculated by IFPRI. This is largely due to differing assumptions about the conversion of forestry land and yields of new crop land.

While, in May 2011, the report Indirect Effects of Biofuels Production produced for GBEP suggested that the Low Indirect Impact Biofuels approach (Ecofys et al) may offer pragmatic solutions by mitigating biofuels production effects at the local level.

In March 2011, IEEP published a report Anticipated Indirect Land Use Change Associated with Expanded Use of Biofuels and Bioliquids in the EU – An Analysis of the National Renewable Energy Action Plans. This report attempts to quantify iLUC impacts, and was prepared for ActionAid, BirdLife International, ClientEarth, European Environmental Bureau, FERN, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, Transport & Environment and Wetlands International.

In February 2011, a report to the European Parliament by Oeko Institute suggested that "current scientific knowledge allows deriving a valid quantitative approximation for GHG emissions from iLUC effects which can be differentiated for various biofuels." This raised the possibility of iLUC factors being applied when calculating the "GHG reduction value" of biofuels from various crops or feedstocks (e.g. oil crops, wheat, sugar, wastes, etc). Dutch policy makers suggested using a generic iLUC factor until further crop-specific research was carried out.

On the other side of the debate, a study Indirect land use change for biofuels: Testing predictions and improving analytical methodologies published in May 2011 in Biomass and Bioenergy [Volume 35, Issue 7, July 2011, Pages 3235-3240] suggests historical data shows no impirical correlation between increases in biofuels production and land use changes for soy and corn production in US trading partners.

A pragmatic report by Greenergy 'Measuring Indirect Land Use Change from Biofuels' updated in March 2011, discusses how BioCarbon Tracker, a web platform (based on satellite imagery) can be used to show where carbon reserves are located, and which are most at risk from agricultural expansion.

"By presenting a “big picture” of land use change, BioCarbon Tracker can provide valuable input to the iLUC debate. BioCarbon Tracker will provide interactive maps of biocarbon stored in vegetation (trees, shrubs, grasses) and soil. It will identify where biocarbon is at risk from agricultural expansion and monitor changes in high risk areas. BioCarbon Tracker will also identify opportunities for increasing biocarbon through improved land management and ecosystem restoration." [Source Greenergy]

In July 2010, The EC launched a public consultation on iLUC and Biofuels.
This followed publication of a number of EC studies on this topic:

pdf - 2 MB Study "Global Trade and Environmental Impact Study of the EU Biofuels Mandate"

pdf - 2 MB Study "Impacts of the EU biofuel target on agricultural markets and land use"

An extensive literature review on iLUC has been carried out by E4Tech as part of a wider iLUC Study, commissioned by the UK Department of Transport. This covers first generation biofuels including: bioethanol from wheat, bioethanol from sugarcane, biodiesel from palm and biodiesel from rapeseed.

The indirect effect of biofuels has been the subject of a number of influential reports, including the Renewable Fuels Agency Review of the Indirect Effects of Biofuels (a.k.a. The Gallagher Report), which led to a change in biofuels policy in the UK in 2008.

Other relevant reports include Biofuels on the Dutch Market commissioned by BirdLife Europe, Transport & Environment, the European Environmental Bureau and the Dutch NGO Natuur & Milieu. The report, published in February 2013, ranks oil companies in the Netherlands to compare the environmental performance of the biofuels sold by the various fuel suppliers and rank them based on the average greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (direct and indirect) of their biofuel blends in 2011. The aim is to identify differences in the companies’ performance and raise the awareness of Dutch consumers. The data were compiled by the Dutch Emissions Authority (NEa), which publishes a selection of the results. The first report, with data for 2011, was published in 2012. The Netherlands is the second EU country (after the United Kingdom) to make data on biofuels publically available.

Previously, iLUC was also a central theme of the report Biofuels - Handle with Care, jointly published in November 2009 by BirdLife European Division, European Environmental Bureau, FERN, Friends of the Earth Europe, Oxfam International, and Transport and Environment

An IEA Bioenergy Workshop on the Impact of iLUC was held in May 2009 in conjunction with ExCo63 , including expert presentations on this issue.

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