Europe’s biofuel push could exacerbate climate change unless policies are in place to accounts for emissions from indirect land use change, warns a letter signed by more than 100 scientists and economists.
The letter, addressed to the European Commission, says the E.U. is deceiving itself and the public by asserting that biofuels are carbon neutral.
“There are uncertainties inherent in estimating the magnitude of indirect land use emissions from biofuels, but a policy that implicitly or explicitly assigns a value of zero is clearly not supported by the science,” states the letter, which is signed by experts from the World Bank, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a wide array of academic institutions, among others. “All the studies of land use change indicate that the emissions related to biofuels expansion are significant and can be quite large.”
A study published in Science in February 2007 showed the production of some biofuels can result in emissions greater than those from fossil fuels. The analysis looked at the lifecycle emissions from various biofuel feedstocks and presented the results as a “carbon debt” ranking. Chart modified from Science
The letter goes on to cite research showing that conventional biofuels derived from feedstocks like rapeseed, corn, and palm oil can “directly or indirectly result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions through the conversion of forests and grasslands to croplands or pasture to accommodate biofuel production.”
The letter says the E.U.’s current greenhouse gas emissions accounting standard is “flawed” and requires “immediate action”.
“Without addressing land use change, the European Union’s target for renewable energy in transport may fail to deliver genuine carbon savings in the real world. It could end up as merely an exercise on paper that promotes widespread deforestation and higher food prices.”
The letter is published in its entirety below.
A letter to the European Commission:
International Scientists and Economists Statement on Biofuels and Land Use
As scientists and economists involved in the field of climate, energy, and land use, we are writing to you to
recommend that policies recognize and account for indirect land use change as a part of the lifecycle
analyses of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biofuels. This will encourage development of sustainable,
low-carbon fuels that avoid conflict with food production and minimize harmful environmental impacts.
Our comments are relevant to your deliberations on indirect land use change emissions in the context of
the Renewable Energy and Fuel Quality Directives. For policies like these to successfully reduce GHG
emissions, it is critical to include all major sources of emissions, including those associated with changes in
Peer-reviewed research over the last several years, including studies commissioned by the European
Commission, indicates that conventional biofuels can directly or indirectly result in substantial GHG
emissions through the conversion of forests and grasslands to croplands or pasture to accommodate
biofuel production. Increased demand for crops to make fuel results in higher global commodity prices that
can induce farmers in other countries to plow up new ground, including sensitive, high-carbon ecosystems
such as tropical forests in South America and Southeast Asia or peatland in Southeast Asia. The conditions
for this to occur are not relegated to the future, but are already in place. The Directives do not currently
account for these emissions in their lifecycle analysis or elsewhere, giving biofuels credit for greater carbon
savings than actually achieved.
There are uncertainties inherent in estimating the magnitude of indirect land use emissions from biofuels,
but a policy that implicitly or explicitly assigns a value of zero is clearly not supported by the science. All
the studies of land use change indicate that the emissions related to biofuels expansion are significant and
can be quite large. Exhaust pipe emissions for biofuels are, by convention, ignored in performing lifecycle
GHG emissions analysis for biofuels. This accounting convention is flawed, as was described in the opinion
of the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee on 15 September 2011.1 To justify the omission
of exhaust pipe emissions, it is essential to account for changes in land use.
The current scientific understanding is sufficient to warrant immediate action, as has already been
recognized in the U.S. federal Renewable Fuel Standard and California Low Carbon Fuels Standard. A
regulation based on a robust framework of science can be adjusted as the analysis matures. Without
addressing land use change, the European Union’s target for renewable energy in transport may fail to
deliver genuine carbon savings in the real world. It could end up as merely an exercise on paper that
promotes widespread deforestation and higher food prices.
It has been suggested that higher GHG thresholds for direct emissions are an adequate substitute for
accounting for indirect land use change emissions. However, a problem in the accounting cannot be fixed
by changing the threshold. A complete accounting is essential to assuring that promised carbon reductions are credible. Flawed accounting could even encourage greater expansion of biofuels that cause damaging changes in land use, as described in the September 15 EEA Scientific Committee opinion.
Biofuels policies should encourage a growing clean energy market and create jobs producing low carbon
biofuels that avoid land use change. Strategic investment decisions must be based upon the best available
assessments of the GHG emissions of alternative fuel pathways. Promptly establishing a credible
framework that includes indirect land use change will signal the market to invest in biofuels that minimize
deforestation and competition with food.
The president of the commission has pledged “a fundamental review of the way EU institutions access and
use scientific advice.”2 We urge you to align the EU biofuels policy with the best scientific knowledge and
take into account emissions from indirect changes in land use.
A full list of signatories can be found here.
(03/24/2011) Not too long ago policy-makers, scientists, and environmentalists saw biofuels as a significant tool to provide sustainable energy to the world. However, as it became clear that biofuels were not only connected to deforestation, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions (sometimes exceeding fossil fuels), but also competed with the global food supply and water sources, biofuels no longer seemed like a silver bullet, but a new problem facing the environment and the poor. Still, biofuels have persisted not so much due to perceived environmental benefits, but to entrenched interests by the big agricultural industry, lobbyists, and governments. However, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) hopes to begin certifying environmentally friendly biofuels that don’t compete with food production or water sources.
(01/26/2011) The commercial shows a typical office setting. A worker sits drearily at a desk, shredding papers and watching minutes tick by on the clock. When his break comes, he takes out a Nestle KitKat bar. As he tears into the package, the viewer, but not the office worker, notices something is amiss—what should be chocolate has been replaced by the dark hairy finger of an orangutan. With the jarring crunch of teeth breaking through bone, the worker bites into the “bar.” Drops of blood fall on the keyboard and run down his face. His officemates stare, horrified. The advertisement cuts to a solitary tree standing amid a deforested landscape. A chainsaw whines. The message: Palm oil—an ingredient in many Nestle products—is killing orangutans by destroying their habitat, the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
(08/30/2010) The European Union’s renewable fuels target is driving land grabs in Africa that threaten the environment and local communities, claims a new report from Friends of the Earth (FOE).
(02/16/2010) The European Union’s biofuel targets could starve up to 100 million people, warns a report from an anti-poverty charity. ActionAid estimates the E.U.’s plan to source 10 percent of transport fuels from biofuels would increase competition for agricultural lands, spurring a sharp rise in food prices. Dearer food would disproportionally affect the world’s poorest people.
(09/21/2009) Indonesian authorities are failing to prevent illegal logging and conversion of protected areas for oil palm cultivation used to supply the European market with supposedly “green” biofuels, alleges a new report from Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and WALHI KalBar (Friends of the Earth Indonesia, West Kalimantan). The report, “Failing governance – Avoiding responsibilities”, claims that European biofuel policies have driven reckless oil palm expansion in Ketapang District, West Kalimantan, resulting in illegal issuance of development permits and land conflicts, thereby undermining governance structures.
(07/16/2009) Sustainable biofuels can be a reality but only in combination with reductions in fuel demand and increased productivity on existing agricultural lands, argue researchers writing in the journal Science. Five years ago biofuels were seen as a panacea for the world’s energy hunger and the need to address climate change, but increased production of biofuels soon contributed to a clutch of problems, including competition with food, resulting in rising prices, and large-scale conversion of rainforests and tropical grasslands for feedstocks, resulting in biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists and scientists condemned many biofuels — including ethanol produced from Midwestern corn ethanol and biodiesel generated from European rapeseed and Southeast Asian palm oil — as a short-sighted energy solution. Some biofuels were found to be even worse for the environment, and more costly, than conventional gasoline. However some researchers remain optimistic that smart biofuel production could help meet energy demand without hurting people or the planet. In a Science Policy Forum piece, David Tilman and colleagues explore some of these options, noting that biofuels can be produced in substantial quantities at low environmental cost
(09/12/2008) The E.U. voted to relax biofuels targets following widespread criticism of their social, economic, and environmental impacts. Thursday the European Parliament’s Industry and Energy Committee said it would push a plan calling for a 5 percent share of renewables in transport fuel by 2015 and a 10 percent target by 2020, a reduction from the 20 percent target set forth in March 2007. The plan effectively cuts targets for biofuels produced from conventional feedstocks to four percent in 2015 and six percent in 2020.
(08/27/2008) The British government should end subsidies for biofuels and instead use the funds to slow destruction of rainforests and tropical peatlands argues a new report issued by a U.K.-based think tank. The study, titled “The Root of the Matter” and published by Policy Exchange, says that “avoided deforestation” would be a more cost-effective way to address climate change, since land use change generates more emissions than the entire global transport sector and offers ancillary benefits including important ecosystem services.
(07/25/2008) Under attack by politicians, aid groups, and environmentalists for driving up food prices and fueling destruction of ecologically sensitive habitats, some of the world’s largest agroindustrial firms have formed a lobby group to influence consumers and lawmakers to support continued subsidies for biofuel production, reports Reuters.
(07/22/2008) Biofuels meant to help alleviate greenhouse gas emissions may be in fact contributing to climate change when grown on converted tropical forest lands, warns a comprehensive study published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Analyzing the carbon debt for biofuel crops grown in ecosystems around the world, Holly Gibbs and colleagues report that “while expansion of biofuels into productive tropical ecosystems will always lead to net carbon emissions for decades to centuries… [expansion] into degraded or already cultivated land will provide almost immediate carbon savings.” The results suggest that under the right conditions, biofuels could be part of the effort to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint.
(07/17/2008) Government support of biofuel production in rich countries is squandering vast amounts of amounts of money while exacerbating the global food crisis and failing to meaningfully curb greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy security, alleges a new report from the OECD, the club of industrialized nations.
(07/14/2008) Rising demand for fuel, food, and wood products will take a heavy toll on tropical forests, warns a new report released by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
(06/14/2008) The emergence and expansion of biofuels produced from food crops has exacerabted world’s agriculture and water crisis and is a bigger short-term threat than global warming, argued Peter Brabeck-Letmathe in an editorial published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal Asia.
(05/27/2008) Next generation biofuels could decimate tropical forests says a leading ecologist from the University of Minnesota.
(02/14/2008) Echoing sentiments increasingly expressed by politicians, scientists, and advocates for the poor, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that the world’s poorest people are suffering as a result of the push to use food crops for biofuel production.
(02/07/2008) Converting native ecosystems for production of biofuel feed stocks is worsening the greenhouse gas emissions they are intended to mitigate, reports a pair of studies published in the journal Science. The studies follow a series of reports that have linked ethanol and biodiesel production to increased carbon dioxide emissions, destruction of biodiverse forest and savanna habitats, and water and air pollution.
(01/17/2008) U.S. incentives for biofuel production are promoting deforestation in southeast Asia and the Amazon by driving up crop prices and displacing energy feedstock production, say researchers.
(01/03/2008) Biofuels made from world’s dominant energy crops — including corn, soy, and oil palm — may have worse environment impacts than conventional fossil fuels, reports a study published in the journal Science.
(08/30/2007) Environmentalists have long seen biofuels as a means to improve the sustainability of transportation and energy use since they are a renewable source of energy that can be replenished on an ongoing basis. Further, because biofuels are generally derived from plants, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, biofuel production offers the potential to help offset carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change. Nonetheless, in recent years, there has been considerable backlash against biofuels, which are increasingly viewed as a threat to the environment. Green groups now point to large-scale land conversion for energy crops, higher food prices, and a spate to studies that suggest net emissions from corn ethanol are little better than those from fossil fuels, to caution that biofuels can cause more problems than they address.
(08/15/2007) Conserving forests and grasslands may be a more effective land-use strategy for fighting climate change than growing biofuel crops argues a new paper published in the journal Science. Comparing emissions from various fuel crops versus carbon storage in natural ecosystems, Renton Righelato and Dominick Spracklen write that “forestation of an equivalent area of land would sequester two to nine times more carbon over a 30-year period than the emissions avoided by the use of the biofuel.”
(05/17/2007) Ethanol production in the United States may be contributing to deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest said a leading expert on the Amazon. Dr. Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center said the growing demand for corn ethanol means that more corn and less soy is being planted in the United States. Brazil, the world’s largest producer of soybeans, is more than making up for shortfall, by clearing new land for soy cultivation. While only a fraction of this cultivation currently occurs in the Amazon rainforest, production in neighboring areas like the cerrado grassland helps drive deforestation by displacing small farmers and cattle producers, who then clear rainforest land for subsistence agriculture and pasture.
(03/29/2007) The United States could dramatically cut oil usage over the next 20-30 years at low to no net cost, said Amory B. Lovins, cofounder and CEO of the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, speaking at Stanford University Wednesday night for a week-long evening series of lectures sponsored by Mineral Acquisition Partners, Inc.
(02/16/2007) Ethanol is generally not as green as some people believe says Bruce Dale, Michigan State University professor of chemical engineering and materials science. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Francisco, Dale says that while corn ethanol produces less greenhouse gases than gasoline, it can cause other detrimental environmental effects if not carefully managed.