The production of biofuels may indirectly cause land use changes such as deforestation of tropical rainforests, and lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Research by scientists from Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development shows that this unwanted land use change can be prevented. Their synthesis report was published on 13 January.
In Europe, biofuels are an important source of renewable energy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, biofuels may cause indirect land use changes that threaten their sustainability and jeopardize their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels.
Risk of increased emissions through indirect effects
Growing demand for biofuels may result in increased requirements for land. This can put pressure on other uses of land, such as food production, and may result in the displacement of the latter activities to other, less suitable locations. Forests or nature reserves, for example, may get converted into agricultural land to meet the growing demand for food. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘indirect land use change’, or ILUC, and can result in increased greenhouse gas emissions, explains Dr Birka Wicke of Utrecht University in a Copernicus Institute report.
The risk of indirect effects has so far been analysed using economic models but these omitted concrete measures that could counteract the displacement of land. Scientists from Utrecht University have now investigated ILUC mitigation measures in four case studies to produce an enhanced understanding of and recommendations for ILUC mitigation.
Measures for ILUC mitigation
Dr Wicke worked with colleagues Marnix Brinkman, Sarah Gerssen-Gondelach and Carina van der Laan from Utrecht University and Professor André Faaij of the University of Groningen to propose a number of measures to prevent indirect effects.
The four case studies show that unwanted land use changes caused by biofuels can be mitigated and in some cases prevented. “One of the case studies was done in Poland, where the agricultural land in a single province was found to have the potential to meet the country’s overall target for second generation biofuels for 2020 – without causing ILUC”, says Dr. Wicke.
Also the other case studies show that large amounts of additional biofuels can be produced with a low risk of causing indirect effects: the three European case studies investigated in this project (which together cover only 6% of agricultural land in the European Union) could sustainably produce enough low-ILUC-risk biofuels to supply over 1% of the total energy use (or 13% of the renewable energy use) in road transport in the EU in 2020.
The potential for all of Europe is substantial
Sustainably intensifying the entire agricultural sector, through yield increases, and using currently under-utilized land for extra production could considerably increase total production levels without the need for additional land expansion. “That way, crops won’t have to be relocated and there’ll be no need to convert nature areas into additional agricultural land”, explains Wicke. “It’s essential, however, that Europe develop a strategy to maximise the synergies between agriculture and bioenergy.
Measures that focus on biofuels alone will not be enough to prevent ILUC. In addition to making biofuels more sustainable, the measures we propose in our study would also benefit the whole agricultural sector.”
The website of the Copernicus Institute contains more information about ILUC, including a two page summary and the synthesis report.