For science’s sake, the EU must legislate on biofuels land use change

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On 11th July, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of accounting for scientifically proven ‘indirect emissions’ (known as ILUC) from European biofuels. This type of accounting is the best available option to reduce negative climate impacts from biofuels, says Chris Malins.

Dr Chris Malins leads the Fuels Program of the International Council on Clean Transportation.

According to the EU states’ National Renewable Energy Action Plans, leaving the continent’s biofuels policy unchanged will result in 25 million tonnes of biodiesel from vegetable oil, and about 10 million tonnes of ethanol from sugar and grain, being consumed annually in Europe by 2020. This policy, based on the EU’s renewable energy and fuel quality directives, is paid for by road users through higher fuel prices and by taxpayers through tax exemptions.  

It ought to reduce carbon emissions from European transport by at least 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and the directives contain a rule that each litre of biofuel should reduce carbon emissions by 50% compared to fossil fuels. This implies a cost of around €250 per tonne of carbon dioxide abated, based on the cost estimate in the UK transport ministry’s impact assessment for the Fuel Quality Directive.   

Unfortunately, there is a problem with these two directives. Producing tens of millions of tonnes of biofuel requires a large increase in agricultural output, or a correspondingly large reduction in the amount of food people eat. If the extra agricultural production comes from clearing land to expand farms, either in Europe itself or further afield in countries like Brazil or Indonesia, it will cause the loss of carbon stored in the soil and in biomass (grasses, shrubs, trees and so forth) on the land, emitted as carbon dioxide.

We, scientists, call these indirect land-use change emissions, or iLUC. We say ‘indirect’ because the expansion of agricultural area can occur far away from the increase in biofuel production. The Directives don’t consider these land-use change emissions, but inserted a review clause that action should be taken if land use change emissions would prevent the target of 50% carbon savings being met.

The European Commission has duly commissioned a series of reports on iLUC – done internally, by the Commission’s scientific experts at the Joint Research Centre, and by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). These studies, like studies for US regulators and by other institutions, confirmed that iLUC emissions are significant and in some cases will prevent biofuels from delivering emissions savings. For instance, biodiesel from vegetable oils is likely to be worse for the climate than fossil diesel.

In a peer reviewed paper last year, I showed that based on the best available iLUC estimates, Europe is likely to achieve only 5% carbon savings, not 50% - reducing the savings by a factor of ten. In that case, the real cost of carbon abatement through the policy would rise from €250 per tonne to an eye watering €2500 per tonne. In the same paper, I showed that introducing ‘iLUC factors’ based on the economic modelling by IFPRI would safeguard the carbon savings from the policy.

On the same day as the vote, an opinion piece in this journal by Dr. Matthias Finkbeiner argued that not only were the iLUC values determined by the Commission too uncertain to legislate, but that because of this uncertainty they threatened the credibility of the whole idea of lifecycle analysis. It’s true that iLUC factors have uncertainty in them – but IFPRI and others, including the ICCT, have worked to analyse that uncertainty, and the evidence is strong that the package of measures voted on by the Environment Committee, including iLUC factors, will reduce indirect emissions while improving food security.

In science, uncertainty is normal. The credibility of lifecycle analysis can survive uncertainty – there are already uncertainties all through lifecycle models. What it could not survive would be for European policy makers to stick their heads in the sand and keep on using a technique for lifecycle analysis that completely ignores one of the biggest emissions sources in the biofuel lifecycle.

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