Indirect land use change (ILUC) has been finding its way regularly into the global biofuels discussion lately. The concept that the growth of feedstocks for biofuels is taking up food-crop acreage that must be replaced by converting non-food cropland in other countries, resulting in a net loss of carbon sequestration, has perplexed regulators and stakeholders alike.
European Union members debated for months last year and eventually failed to reach an agreement on capping the amount of biofuels made from food crops allowed in the region. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is lowering the maximum greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions allowed from ethanol coming from out of state. ILUC had been a critical factor in those deliberations and continues to be in others.
In Europe, the idea of a cap was eventually dropped, due mostly to a political divide between delegates representing environmental and agricultural interests, but also in no small part due to significant questions over the validity of claims attributing increased emissions stemming biofuel-related ILUC. And in California, stakeholders say regulators there still put way too much stock in ILUC factors and have not lowered the allowed emission levels from out-of-state ethanol nearly enough. All biofuel advocates cite the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change work group report on mitigation that found biofuels, if produced sustainably, are economically and environmentally beneficial and that ILUC modelling is unverifiable.
ILUC is a complex subject that has split scientists and researchers over its legitimacy, much less its scope, since the concept was published by a Princeton researcher in 2008. Fortunately, there is clear and convincing evidence that shows biofuels are unfairly implicated as bad actors and, in fact, do not contribute to emission-raising changes in land use.
For instance, USDA figures show historical trends indicate increased U.S. ethanol demand has not been a significant driver of global land use change, instead determining that increased crop productivity has primarily provided the growth in production necessary to meet heightened demand for crop-based feed, food and fuel.
Despite increases in the amount of coarse grains used for ethanol, the amount of land dedicated to those grains (corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rye and millet) globally has decreased 6.9 percent between 1980 and 2013. Still, production has increased a dramatic 73.2 percent. In the United States, corn production has increased from 6.6 to 13.9 billion bushels, and production per acre has increased from 91 bushels to 158.8 since 1980.
A principal argument waged by ILUC obsessives says that U.S. corn and soybean exports drop appreciably, resulting in cultivation in other countries to account for the lost volume on the world market. Not only has that drop not occurred, but, for example, U.S. exports of soybeans are projected to hit a record high in 2013-14 at 1.5 billion bushels, a level of demand completely independent of U.S. biofuel policies.
There are a number of studies done over the years that seriously question the premise of ILUC, including a 2009 analysis done Steffen Mueller from the Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago that found a modern ethanol plant does not meaningfully change farmland use, neither the amount of land farmed nor the mix of crops planted. Another 2009 study, this one conducted by Air Improvement Resource, found the current Renewable Fuels Standard requiring 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2015 will be met by higher corn yields and should not result in new forest or grassland conversion domestically or abroad.
More recently, peer-reviewed papers from two different research teams – one at Michigan State University and the other at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab ‑ found no empirical, reality-based, evidence for ILUC from corn ethanol.
Another favorite among critics of biofuels is the claim that deforestation in the Amazon has been ratcheted up by ILUC. Yet, the National Institute of Space Research says deforestation in the Amazon has declined sharply just as American biofuels production doubled.
These points – along with other recent findings ‑ make clear that biofuels do not contribute to ILUC but, in fact, are responsible for reducing carbon emissions. The fact that biofuels emit far fewer GHGs than gasoline is a point that stakeholders must persistently share with policy makers and regulators. It’s important that ILUC not be unjustly used to deter the incorporation of ethanol and other biofuels into our national energy strategy, where they will continue to promote jobs, enhance our energy security and improve our air.