Full decarbonisation of transport will be hard without biofuels, but sustainability concerns have made policymakers weary of stimulating crop-based biofuels. The debate on the indirect impacts from biofuels in particular has increased recently. For example, on December 2, 2017, a group of Dutch scientists called on the Dutch cabinet to stop the use of food crops for biofuels. The lead argument refers to the GLOBIOM report, though it mainly follows the interpretation by the non-governmental organization Transport & Environment.
What Is ILUC?
Indirect land use change, or ILUC, is the rippling effect that an increasing demand for biofuels feedstock can have on global agriculture. This could lead to land expansion and deforestation elsewhere, with the subsequent effect of increased CO2 emissions.
ILUC is not measurable, as it takes place via complex economic interactions and is manifested only in small variations in the large dynamics of the global agriculture system. It can only be analysed through detailed modelling. In 2015 and 2016, the European Commission contracted Ecofys, a Navigant company, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) to assess ILUC with the GLOBIOM model.
What Do We Know About ILUC?
From this study, we see that ILUC effects depends on the type of biofuels crop, among other factors:
- ILUC impacts from sugar- and starch-based ethanol are small. The contribution of these types of biofuels can be increased without ILUC risks.
- The same holds for wood- and straw-based biofuels.
- Higher ILUC values are found for European oil crop-based biofuels, but ILUC is paid back within a few years by the savings resulting from replacing fossil fuels.
- ILUC emissions are very large for soybean and palm oil. It is advised to decrease the volumes of biofuels based on these crops unless they are produced (certified) without ILUC.
It is crucial to be aware of the ultimate sources of ILUC emissions in tropical countries: mainly deforestation and peatland drainage caused by sectors that are not held accountable to EU biofuels standards. Top policy priority should therefore be to stop deforestation (globally) and agricultural expansion into peatland (mainly in Indonesia).
How to Avoid ILUC
From the biofuels production perspective, ILUC can be avoided in several practical ways:
- Produce additional crops on abandoned agricultural or degraded land so that it does not interfere with normal crop production.
- Use investments in biofuels to innovate in agriculture, to sustainably increase EU yields, and to bridge yield gaps in developing countries.
- Produce additional crops within the current agricultural land; for example, through sequential cropping.
What Does This Mean for Biofuels in General?
It is important to remember that crop-based biofuels can contribute to the greening of transport in a sustainable way. The ILUC concept should not be used to categorically decrease their contribution. Other aspects should be considered in addition to ILUC. Specific considerations can put impacts in perspective and certain solutions can make the challenges manageable. This does not mean we should give carte blanche to increasing the levels of any and all biofuels. But it is possible to govern the sustainability performance and limit the ILUC impact. A generic call for the phaseout of all crop-based biofuels is ultimately counterproductive in the fight against climate change.