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


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