Indirect land use impacts of biofuels

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Bioenergy > Issues > Greenhouse gas emissions > Indirect land use impacts of biofuels
Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels > RSB Current Debate on Land Use

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Note: See also the ILUC Portal page.



  • RSB announces Public Consultation on the issue of Indirect Impacts (PDF file), 13 April 2012 by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB): "During the past three years, the RSB Secretariat, based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has collected a considerable volume of information, data and knowledge about indirect impacts of biofuel production, thanks in part to the contribution of the RSB indirect impacts expert group (IIEG). It is now time for the RSB constituencies to decide on a way forward regarding a possible inclusion of indirect impacts in the RSB Standard.
    • "In May-June 2012, RSB members will discuss the issue of indirect impacts in a series of RSB Chamber calls and during the June in-person Steering Board meeting. But before these discussions take place at the membership level, the RSB Secretariat is launching Public Consultation on the subject, in which all members of the general public are invited to provide us with feedback on this issue."
    • "For this purpose, the RSB Secretariat has drafted the attached Background Paper (PDF file) (“Indirect Impacts of biofuel production and the RSB Standard”) that is meant to be a neutral and objective representation of indirect impacts, state of knowledge, potential options to address the issue in the Standard (including the option not to address it), and an evaluation of such options. This paper will form the basis for the public consultation and also for the discussion at the Chamber and Steering Board level."
    • Summary timeline for this consultation:
      • Public consultation (1 month): April 13 – May 15
      • RSB Chambers consultation: 2nd half of May
      • Steering Board Meeting and decision on way forward: June 12-13
    • To submit feedback, send an email or a marked-up pdf document to: victoria.junquera[at] or use the Feedback Form available at before May 15, 2012.
  • ‘This must be the most researched subject in the EU’s history!’, 19 March 2012 by Nusa Urbancic for European Federation for Transport and Environment: "Two new reports are expected to put more pressure on the Commission over its biofuels policy. Both add to the growing bank of evidence that under current policies, changes in land use caused by growing biofuels crops will wipe out the climate benefits of using certain biofuels, especially in the case of biodiesel."
    • "One report on the cost-effectiveness of policies to decarbonise transport, due to be published by a group of consultancies later this month, says most models show that indirect land-use change (Iluc) will mean ‘a net increase of greenhouse gases’ for biodiesel. The other report, also still to be published, says that if biofuels’ lifecycle emissions, rather than just direct emissions, from Iluc are taken into account, the EU would achieve little more than half its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050." [1]
  • Location key to calculating biofuel carbon footprint, 4 February 2012 by “The US government has set a target for producing cellulosic ethanol of nearly 40 billion litres each year by 2020. The perennial grass Miscanthus x giganteus is one potential source… But the climate impact of using the grass to make cellulosic ethanol depends on how and where it's grown, processed and transported. With that in mind, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, US, have assessed the optimum conditions for producing the fuel, using six different scenarios.”
    • “The team found that, provided indirect land-use change (ILUC) was successfully minimized or mitigated, the major factors affecting the greenhouse-gas emissions of cellulosic ethanol production were the amount of soil carbon emitted or stored during growth of the grass, and greenhouse-gas offset credits for electricity exported to the grid by biorefineries.”
    • "What also became increasingly clear to us is the importance of location; where the biomass is grown, where the biorefineries are located, and by what mode and how far both the biomass and ethanol product must be transported are all key to assessing the environmental impacts," said Scown. "These are all unknowns for an industry such as cellulosic ethanol production that has yet to develop on a commercial scale."[2]
    • Read the article, Lifecycle greenhouse gas implications of US national scenarios for cellulosic ethanol production, published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).
  • Biofuels may meet development needs of Sub-Saharan Africa, 3 October 2011 by Center for International Forestry Research blog: "Biofuel expansion has enormous potential to stimulate rural development in Sub-Saharan Africa, but ensuring local community benefits and adequate protections for food production and forests will require strategic policy interventions and close collaboration among stakeholders, according to a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research."
    • "Biofuels have been touted as a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels, however critics of biofuel production argue that the expansion of biofuel development can often contribute to deforestation."
    • "Moreover, increasing land acquisition for biofuel expansion rather than food production in Africa could undermine food security and exacerbate a number of underlying social issues."
    • "The study urges for increased collaboration between government and the biofuel industry which will ensure that biofuel development can enhance livelihoods by bringing in urgently needed investment in the agricultural sector that would result in improved infrastructure and increased cash income in impoverished rural areas."[4]
  • European biofuels given reprieve, report suggests, 12 September 2011 by Farmers Guardian: "THE European Union’s top climate and energy officials have agreed to delay rules which would penalise individual biofuels for their indirect climate impacts, Reuters news agency is reporting."
    • "The political compromise is designed to protect EU farmers’ incomes and existing investments in the biofuel sector, while discouraging new investments in biofuels which do nothing to fight climate change."
    • "At issue is indirect land use change (ILUC), which states if you divert food crops to biofuel production, someone, somewhere, will go hungry unless those missing metric tons of grain are grown elsewhere."
    • "If the crops to make up the shortfall are grown on new farmland created by cutting down rainforests or draining peat land, this can release enough climate-warming emissions to cancel out any theoretical emission savings from biofuels."
    • "The July agreement would delay crop-specific rules on ILUC in favor of an indirect approach that penalises all biofuels equally.This involves raising the carbon-savings threshold that all biofuels must meet compared with conventional fossil fuel to count toward the EU’s target, which aims to raise the share of biofuel in road transport fuels to about 10 percent in 2020."[5]
  • EU to delay action on biofuels' indirect impact, 8 September 2011 by Reuters: "The European Union's top climate and energy officials have agreed to delay by up to seven years rules that would penalize individual biofuels for their indirect climate impacts, details of the deal showed."
    • "The political compromise is designed to protect EU farmers' incomes and existing investments in the bloc's 17 billion euro-a-year ($24 billion) biofuel sector, while discouraging new investments in biofuels that do nothing to fight climate change."
    • "At issue is an emerging concept known as indirect land use change (ILUC), which states that if you divert food crops to biofuel production, someone, somewhere, will go hungry unless those missing metric tons of grain are grown elsewhere."
    • "If the crops to make up the shortfall are grown on new farmland created by cutting down rainforests or draining peat land, this can release enough climate-warming emissions to cancel out any theoretical emission savings from biofuels."
    • "The July agreement would delay crop-specific rules on ILUC in favor of an indirect approach that penalizes all biofuels equally."
    • "This involves raising the carbon-savings threshold that all biofuels must meet compared with conventional fossil fuel to count toward the EU's target, which aims to raise the share of biofuel in road transport fuels to about 10 percent in 2020."
    • "By sending a clear message that ILUC factors will be introduced in the future, the Commission said its approach would help to 'phase out the worst performing biofuels and to prevent further investments in unsustainable biofuels.'"
    • "The Commission is expected to present formally its ILUC proposals in the coming months, after which EU governments and the European Parliament will have a limited time in which to raise any objections."[6]
  • Sugar Cane-to-Jet Fuel Pathway Analyzed for Sustainability, 8 August 2011 by Environment News Service: "Two publicly traded aircraft manufacturers and the Inter-American Development Bank will jointly fund a sustainability analysis of renewable jet fuel sourced from Brazilian sugar cane."
    • "Shouldering the funding with the bank are The Boeing Company and Embraer S.A., the world's largest manufacturer of commercial jets up to 120 seats."
    • "For the first time, the study will evaluate environmental and market conditions associated with the use of renewable jet fuel produced by Amyris Brasil S.A., a majority-owned Brazilian company, a subsidiary of California-based Amyris."
    • "The global conservation organization World Wildlife Fund will serve as an independent reviewer and advisor for the analysis."
    • "Scheduled for completion in early 2012, the study will include a complete life cycle analysis of the emissions associated with Amyris's renewable jet fuel, including indirect land use change and effects."[7]
  • EU gets tough on dirty biofuel, pledges more action, 19 July 2011 by Reuters: "Europe's energy chief announced seven green certification schemes for biofuels on Tuesday and promised in future to tackle the unwanted side-effects of turning food into fuel."
    • "Guenther Oettinger said biofuels' indirect impacts were dangerous for the planet's carbon balance and food supply."
    • "The European Union agreed three years ago to get 10 percent of its road fuels from biofuels -- at a time when such fuels were widely regarded as good for the environment -- but since then controversy has raged in Europe over the target."
    • "Oettinger took a first step toward limiting biofuels' impact on the environment on Tuesday, launching a green standard to prevent companies from clearing forest, peatlands or grassland to grow biofuels for the European market."
    • "Critics say the EU's biofuel target creates an incentive for farmers to hack directly into forests to create space to grow fuel crops -- known as direct land use change."
    • "But they also charge that even biofuel crops planted in Europe can send shock waves through global food markets and indirectly promote deforestation -- indirect land use change."
    • "Recent research shows that when more food is needed, the majority of new farmland, possibly as much as 80 percent, comes from burning down forests."[8]
  • Analysis: Bioethanol may win in crunch time for EU biofuels, 13 May 2011 by Reuters: "After a two-year investigation, the European Commission has decided that the complex issue of 'indirect land use change' (ILUC) can lessen carbon savings from biofuels."
    • "The battle over ILUC has poured doubt on the security of any new investments, but that could be ended this summer when the Commission announces moves to curb the least sustainable."
    • "EU sources involved in the debate say a ranking is starting to emerge, giving the cleanest credentials to advanced bioethanol from farming residues such as straw. Next comes bioethanol from sugar beet and sugar cane, followed by the most efficient bioethanol from wheat."
    • "The Commission's new evidence will also create pressure to speed up the adoption of next-generation biofuels from agricultural residues such as straw, which do not compete with food and therefore do not create ILUC."
    • "But many industry players say Europe's political incentives are not enough to compensate for the risks and added costs of investing in new technology. 'The technology is available.' said Kare Riis Nielsen of Novozymes. 'Now we are facing a political barrier. The current policies are ineffective. A specific blending target or mandate for next-generation biofuels in all petrol is key.'[10]
  • European ethanol, ag sectors unite in criticizing ILUC modeling, 3 May 2011 press release by ePURE in Ethanol Producer Magazine: "At a jointly hosted conference on May 3 in Brussels, the European Renewable Ethanol Association (ePURE) and European farmers body Copa-Cogeca joined forces to criticize European Commission plans to introduce an ILUC factor for biofuels."
    • "At the meeting, organized to examine the commission’s current thinking on indirect land use change (ILUC), both organizations urged the EC to step back from considering introducing unwarranted and punitive measures on the European ethanol and farming sector. In a December 2010 communication, the commission suggested that it may introduce an ILUC factor in regulations which ePURE and Copa-Cogeca would render the European biofuel industry unviable."
    • "The focal point of the Brussels meeting was a set of well-researched presentations by several ILUC experts. These experts all agree that the current modeling is simply not adequate as a basis for good policy-making...."
    • "The ethanol industry has the strong impression that it is going to be penalized for something it is not responsible for, such as deforestation. Instead, this industry should be rewarded for bringing idle land in Europe back into productivity and for providing vital coproducts for the food sector."[11]
  • Evidence of indirect land-use change is clear, says report, 21 March 2011 by Transport & Environment: "A report by Germany’s Öko Institut says there is sufficient scientific knowledge for the EU to include the effects of indirect land use change (Iluc) in its sustainability criteria to determine which biofuels will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report was commissioned by the European Parliament’s environment committee, and puts further pressure on the Commission to include ILUC in its assessment of policy options on biofuels due to be published in July."
    • "The report was presented to MEPs earlier this month, and criticises December’s decision by the Commission to delay incorporating Iluc until it has more evidence about its effects. Iluc is the syndrome by which growing crops for biofuels triggers displacement of existing food or feed production to nature areas, which in many cases leads to higher emissions from biofuels than from the production of conventional fuels."
    • "The Öko Institut says the only viable option for assessing the environmental performance of biofuels is to have feedstock-specific Iluc factors. This would directly link the production of biofuels to its effect on food production."[12]
  • Recent developments of biofuels/bioenergy sustainability certification: A global overview , March 2011 by ScienceDirect:
    • From the abstract: "A large number of national and international initiatives lately experienced rapid development in the view of the biofuels and bioenergy targets announced in the European Union, United States and other countries worldwide. The main certification initiatives are analysed in detail, including certification schemes for crops used as feedstock for biofuels, the various initiatives in the European Union, United States and globally, to cover biofuels and/or biofuels production and use....Certification has the potential to influence positively direct environmental and social impact of bioenergy production. Key recommendations to ensure sustainability of biofuels/bioenergy through certification include the need of an international approach and further harmonisation, combined with additional measures for global monitoring and control. The effects of biofuels/bioenergy production on indirect land use change (ILUC) is still very uncertain; addressing the unwanted ILUC requires sustainable land use planning and adequate monitoring tools such as remote sensing, regardless of the end-use of the product."[13]
  • Midwest senators strike back with pro-biofuels bill, 11 March 2011 by Ethanol Producer Magazine: "Two Midwest senators proposed legislation March 10 favoring the build-out of biofuels infrastructure and continued federal support of ethanol and biodiesel. The Securing America’s Future with Energy and Sustainable Technologies Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., would establish incentives for biofuels infrastructure and deployment, develop a 'more cost-effective' tax credit program for ethanol and biodiesel, establish a renewable energy standard and encourage greater production of hybrid, electric and flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs)."
    • "The bill immediately received widespread support from renewable fuels and agriculture groups."
    • "The 117-page SAFEST Act covers a wide spectrum of renewable fuels interests and contains several important provisions related to the ethanol industry....The legislation also includes text that would prevent the U.S. EPA from considering international indirect land use changes when calculating biofuels’ lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and calls for the National Academies of Science to conduct a review of methodologies used to project indirect GHG emissions relating to transportation fuels."[14]
  • RFA Supports ARB Adoption of New Purdue ILUC Work, But Cautions that More Improvements are Needed, 17 February 2011 by Renewable Fuels Association: "In comments submitted Wednesday to the California Air Resources Board (ARB), the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) continued to raise concerns regarding the indirect land use change (ILUC) analysis used for the state’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS)."
    • "The results of Purdue’s recent analysis reduce the ILUC penalty for corn ethanol from ARB’s current value of 30 grams/megajoule (g/MJ) to approximately 14 g/MJ."
    • "In general, the RFA agreed with many of the recommendations provided by the appointed experts on the workgroup to improve ARB’s ILUC analysis."[15]
  • In face of hunger, corn ethanol industry says blame anyone but us, 14 February 2011 by "In a Washington Post editorial last week, biofuels expert Tim Searchinger sheds much needed light on the link between two important trends in today’s markets for grains: the expansion of global biofuels mandates on the one hand and the frequency and magnitude of food shortages around the world on the other."
    • "Where Searchinger lays out how in a complicated and complex market, biofuels make a bad situation worse, the industry cries for the messenger’s head and tries to shift the blame to anyone but themselves."
    • "This now prominently features attacks on the science of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions accounting for biofuels, including the need to account for the carbon that is emitted when forests and other uncultivated lands are cleared for food production as a result of existing cropland being diverted towards growing grains for fuel."[16]
  • Oettinger tells Europe: It's double or quits on renewables, 31 January 2011 by "Europe will have to double its spending on renewables if it wants to meet its 2020 energy commitments, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has said."
    • "The data showed that EU member states had largely failed to meet the electricity and transport targets they had set themselves for 2010."
    • "But the latest figures show that only seven EU countries – Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland and Portugal– expect to meet or exceed their 2010 renewables targets, according to their national action plans."
    • "To achieve the EU's energy goals, Oettinger called for a doubling of capital investments in renewable energies from €35 billion to €70 billion. This would require a substantial use of national support plans, he stated. But he did not set any time frame for implementation."
    • "'If member states work together and produce renewable energy where it costs less, companies, consumers and the taxpayer will benefit from this,' he added."
    • "'Unfortunately, the Commission is still dragging its feet on the issue of sustainable biofuels,' Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes said."
    • "He called for an urgent introduction of rules to take into account the impact of biofuels on indirect land use change (ILUC)."[17]
  • Biofuel worse for climate than fossil fuel - study, 7 November 2010 by Reuters: "European plans to promote biofuels will drive farmers to convert 69,000 square km of wild land into fields and plantations, depriving the poor of food and accelerating climate change, a report warned on Monday."
    • "As a result, the extra biofuels that Europe will use over the next decade will generate between 81 and 167 percent more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, says the report."
    • "Nine environmental groups reached the conclusion after analysing official data on the European Union's goal of getting 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020."
    • "But the European Commission's energy team, which originally formulated the goal, countered that the bulk of the land needed would be found by recultivating abandoned farmland in Europe and Asia, minimising the impact."
    • "The debate centres on a new concept known as "indirect land-use change."
    • "In essence, that means that if you take a field of grain and switch the crop to biofuel, somebody, somewhere, will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere."
    • "The report was compiled by ActionAid, Birdlife International, ClientEarth, European Environment Bureau, FERN, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, Transport & Environment, Wetlands International."[18]
  • Cars and People Compete for Grain, 1 June 2010 by Earth Policy Institute: "Historically the food and energy economies were separate, but now with the massive U.S. capacity to convert grain into ethanol, that is changing....If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will simply move the commodity into the energy economy."
    • "For every additional acre planted to corn to produce fuel, an acre of land must be cleared for cropping elsewhere. But there is little new land to be brought under the plow unless it comes from clearing tropical rainforests in the Amazon and Congo basins and in Indonesia or from clearing land in the Brazilian cerrado."[19]
  • Weed to Wonder Fuel? Jatropha Draws Biofuel Investors - and Questions, 13 April 2010 by "In the world of biofuels, the pattern is familiar: Concerns grow over one crop's impacts or overhyped potential, and another then appears to take its place with promises of planet-saving prowess."
    • "The latest savior is jatropha, a drought-resistant and hardy plant that supposedly can deliver high energy yields on marginal land and eliminate concerns about food competing with fuel for farmland."
    • "As of 2008, 242 jatropha biofuel projects covered 2.2 million acres; those numbers are likely much higher now....The Global Exchange for Social Investment predicted in its 2008 report that 32 million acres would be in production by 2015."
    • "Achieving [estimated] yields [of 200 gallons of oil per acre per year] on a large scale, though, will most likely require better than 'marginal' lands and better than primitive farming practices."
    • "Also, research into jatropha's potential as a greenhouse gas emissions saver has yet to be fully explored. The major sticking point that arose with corn ethanol, sugarcane and other feedstocks is the concept of indirect land use changes and other elements of total lifecycle emissions that reduce the overall benefits".[21]
  • IFPRI Publishes Study on the EU Biofuels Mandate, by The International Food Policy Research Institute: "The report is one of four commissioned by the European Commission to assess the impacts of the 10% target for the use of renewable energy in road transport fuels by 2020."
    • "The study uses a global general equilibrium model, separately including numerous first generation ethanol and biodiesel feedstocks, co-generated products, farming techniques, as well as direct, and indirect land-use changes (ILUC) resulting from the mandated increase in consumption of biofuels. Additionally, as the model is global, it also considers different multi- and bilateral trade scenarios."
    • "The results indicate that there is ILUC associated with the EU mandate, but that the mandate will still result in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings of nearly 13 million tons over 20 years. Additionally, the authors find that the mandate will have only a negligible effect on food prices and, concerning biodiesel, even with ILUC taken into account, imported palm oil remains as efficient as European rapeseed."[22]
  • Lawsuit: LCFS violates US Constitution, 4 January 2010 by Todd J. Guerrero in Ethanol Producer Magazine: "In a case that will be closely watched throughout the country, Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association recently filed suit in federal district court alleging that California’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) violates the federal Constitution."
    • "Adopted by the California Air Resources Board in 2009, the LCFS is intended to reduce California greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels used in California by an average of 10 percent by the year 2020. Carbon intensity is a measure of the direct and indirect GHG emissions associated with each step of a fuel’s full life cycle – the 'well-to-wheels' for fossil fuels and 'seed-to-wheels' for biofuels."
    • "For corn ethanol, indirect land use changes are a significant source of additional GHG emissions....Given the LCFS’ requirement of reduced carbon intensity, it’s not difficult to see that corn ethanol will be severely disadvantaged in California."[24]

State of the discussion on GHG emissions from indirect land use changes

The article published in Science in February 2008 brought the topic of indirect land use changes caused by biofuels to widespread attention. The RSB Steering Board asked the GHG Working Group to address this issue. This page provides resources helping stakeholders to be informed and thus to properly follow the discussion.

Please send us any further relevant resources which could enhance the discussion. Thanks. (tourane.corbiere"at" or georgios.sarantakos"at"

Background resources on indirect land use changes

  • Letter to Gov Schwarzenegger from biofuel stakeholders to express their concern about the fact that "ARB staff continues to push a regulation that includes an indirect land use change (iLUC)(...) only being enforced against biofuels in the proposed LCFS." [25]
  • Letters to EPA Administrator Johnson:
    • From Bruce Dale and other academics asking him to delay inclusion of indirect land use in the rule for biofuels until better models could be constructed. (October 27, 2008) [26]
    • From the Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Working Group and Friends of the Earth, responding to the Dale letter.(October 31, 2008) [27]
    • From the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), proposing that the EPA reveal its methodology for including indirect land use change so that the proposed rule’s comment period could be used for refining the model before any conclusions are drawn about the impacts of specific biofuels (October 23, 2008) [28]
  • Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, Peter Hawthorne / Scienceexpress (7 February 2008) (PDF file)
  • Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change, Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, Tun-Hsiang Yu / Scienceexpress (7 February 2008) [29] (See also the Supporting Materials (PDF file))
  • Response of the New Fuels Alliance to the articles of Science. "More Misleading Biofuels Analysis- Searchinger and Tillman Reports Raise Serious Methodological Questions" (February 12, 2008) [30]
  • Letter to the Editor of Science, Bruce Dale (February 16, 2008) link (PDF file)
  • Letter to the Editor of Science, John Sheehan (February 17, 2008) link (PDF file)
  • Ethanol and Land Use Changes, David Morris / Policy Brief, New Rules Project (February, 2008) Link (PDF file)
  • Better biofuels before more biofuels, Alexander E. Farrell / San Francisco Chronicle (13 February 2008) [31]
  • Response to New Fuels Alliance and DOE Analysts Criticisms of Science Studies of Greenhouse Gases and Biofuels, Timothy D. Searchinger (February 26, 2008) link (PDF file)
  • Indirect Land Use Thoughts by Bruce Dale (March 3, 2008) (PDF file)
  • Letter to the Editor of Science - Response to Searchinger's answer, Michael Wang (March 14, 2008) link (PDF file)
  • E. Gnansounou et al; "Summary of Methodological Approaches to Calculating the Impacts of Indirect Land Use Change"; LASEN-EPFL; March 2008 link (PDF file).
  • DOE Actively Engaged in Investigating the Role of Biofuels in Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Indirect Land Use Change, U.S: Department of Energy (May 26, 2008) (PDF file)
  • Critique of Searchinger (2008) & related papers assessing indirect effects of biofuels on land-use change by ADAS UK Ltd (A study commissioned by AEA Technology as part of the The Gallagher Biofuels Review for Renewable Fuels Agency Department for Transport) (June 12, 2008) (PDF file)
  • The Gallagher Review of the indirect effects of biofuels production, Renewable Fuels Agency (UK), Final Report (July 2008) (PDF file)
  • Addendum to The Gallagher Review, Renewable Fuel Agency (UK), July 2008 (PDF file)
  • Additonal Material to the Gallagher Review is available on the Renewable Fuels Agency (UK) website [32]


Consideration of the indirect land-use change issue by the California Air Resources Board

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), as part of its activity to put in place a "Low Carbon Fuel Standard", in 2008 addressed the issue of the indirect impacts of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions. The views of various experts were communicated in a number of important letters in June and July 2008. These included:

  • 24 June 2008 (Simmons) letter (PDF file) - Letter of 24 June 2008 from experts at Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories and others to the Chair of the California Air Resources Board. Key excerpts:
    • "As researchers and scientists in the field of biomass to biofuel conversion, we are convinced that there simply is not enough hard empirical data to base any sound policy regulation in regards to the indirect impacts of renewable biofuels production."
    • "The traditional tools used by researchers, including Searchinger et al., to determine the direct and indirect impacts of renewable biofuel production are life cycle analysis (LCA) coupled with land-use change (LUC) projections....LCA models can be applied to the same problem but produce significantly different, and often contradictory, results. There remain great uncertainties and challenges in combining LUC and LCA models that make their use highly problematic....Thus it is extremely difficult to make a comparison of the direct and indirect impacts between fossil fuels and renewable biofuels.
    • "Given that our only options for sustainably powering transportation with a significant reduction in transportation related greenhouse gas emissions are biofuels, batteries, and hydrogen, a presumptive policy implementation based on the current understanding of indirect impacts will have a significant chance to hurt real progress on reducing carbon emissions and decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels."
  • 2 July 2008 (Searchinger) letter (PDF file) - Letter of 2 July 2008 from Princeton University Prof. Tim Searchinger to Blake Simmons, Manager of the Energy Systems Department, Sandia National Laboratories (lead author of the 24 June letter). Key excerpts:
    • "I write to correct an important inaccuracy in your recent letter to the California Air Resources Board regarding our publication...Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change, Science 319:1238-40 (2008).
    • "[I]t is odd that your letter denies the market impacts of biofuels precisely in a year when world crop prices have reached price levels 300% higher for cereals than 2000 and 400% higher for vegetable oil...."
    • "Calculating indirect land use change simply recognizes that the same land used to produce biofuels is already taking up carbon from the atmosphere and would continue to provide carbon benefits in the form of storage or food even if not diverted to producing biofuels....But typical lifecycle analyses ignore the fact that land would already be providing carbon benefits, which are sacrificed when the land is diverted to producing biofuels."
    • "Accounting for the cost of using land to make biofuels as well as the benefit obviously produces a very different result than just counting the benefit. Making biofuels out of waste products avoids these costs. We may also be able to grow new biofuel grasses and trees productively on otherwise unproductive land, resulting in land use benefits that greatly exceed the costs. But your letter does not encourage these alternatives that avoid or minimize land use costs. Instead, it calls for ignoring the cost of using land altogether."
    • "The practical effect of following your advice to count only direct land use effects would be to favor some of the most environmentally harmful biofuels over those that hold promise of true benefits. Biodiesel from palm oil provides a good illustration. It is well known that the drainage of peat lands in Southeast Asia for palm oil plantations triggers enormous soil oxidation and release of carbon dioxide. Palm oil is a valuable and growing vegetable oil, and even absent biofuels, it will continue to grow rapidly....If California counted direct but not indirect land use change, the palm oil industry could sell to California without any change in practice."
    • "Lifecycle analysis of biodiesels from palm, soybeans and rapeseed tend to calculate large greenhouse gas benefits if you ignore land use change. Your advice would therefore have California promote one of the world’s most destructive agricultural practices. That would undercut biofuels that hold promise by avoiding or minimizing impacts from land use change."
  • 3 July 2008 (UC) letter (PDF file) - Letter of 3 July 2008 from researchers from the University of California and other universities to Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board. Key excerpts:
    • "We note with interest the letter dated June 24 from 27 colleagues urging you to implement the Low Carbon Fuel Standard without reference to what they call 'indirect impacts of renewable biofuels production.'"
    • "The authors of the 24 June letter recommend, in simplest terms, that the LCFS be implemented for several years as though the global warming effect of iLUC [indirect Land Use Change] were zero, on grounds that 'great uncertainties' exist about its magnitude and about indirect global warming (GW) effects of fossil fuel use. We disagree with this 'free pass' approach on several scientific, economic, and public policy grounds."
    • "[W]e strongly advise against the path recommended in the July 24 letter. While the science of iLUC impacts is evolving, zero is most certainly not the most likely or scientifically most soundly supported value, and we see no evidence that it will be in the foreseeable future."
    • "It has long been suggested that CO2 emissions released from the conversion of land could dominate the entire lifecycle GHG emissions of biofuels. The evidence that iLUC GW effects are large rests on economic models, including those used to generate the peer-reviewed paper published in January, and widely accepted estimates of the carbon stored in standing biomass in different ecological zones around the world."
    • "So far no models, in particular no peer-reviewed models, have been advanced that come up with values for iLUC that are significantly lower than those in the Searchinger et al paper.
    • "Our past and ongoing work lend strong support to the path CARB is pursuing: developing the life-cycle assessment methods to assess not only the greenhouse gas impacts, but also the wider sustainability of our energy choices."
    • "We know today more than enough to move ahead with a scientifically and socially responsible LCFS. Further work is needed, but this can not be used as an excuse to permit irresponsible ventures to gain a foothold when the science exists today to make more informed choices."

Biochar and carbon-negative land-use systems

Diagram illustrating "carbon negative" bioenergy.

The original draft of this section was contributed by BioenergyWiki user Lorenzo

The articles in Science failed to note the existence of new land use techniques based on carbon soil sequestration, better known as biochar, terra preta or agrichar.

In these systems (see illustration at right), the standing biomass that will be cleared is not burned, but instead turned into biochar via pyrolysis and used to generate energy in the process. The nano-porous char is then stored in the soil to form a stable carbon sink. Char amended soils can sequester hundreds of tonnes of inert C per hectare, and can be built up over time. The carbon has a half life of centuries, possibly millennia (research is still trying to find out the exact range, but the terra preta soils show the time scales involved are large enough for the system to play a role in stabilising the climate.)

This results in highly fertile soils that boost crop yields, reduce fertilizer needs and offset the carbon debt from the first operation onwards. Biochar has been shown to increase Ph, which is highly relevant in the vast acidic soils of the tropics; increases cation exchange capacity; improves water retention capacity; stimulates soil microbial activity; reduces N2O emissions significantly.

In later cycles, more biomass can be grown on these artificial, fertile, high-carbon soils. Yield increases of between 200 and 800 percent have been reported for crops grown on char-amended tropical soils.

More and more biomass can thus be converted via pyrolysis. During the pyrolysis, carbon-negative energy is generated (either as electricity from syngas, or as liquid biofuel obtained from pyrolysis oil or from gas-to-liquids processes).

Overall, the system results in carbon-negative bioenergy. That is: systems that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Negative emissions offset the carbon debt from the start, and after the first cycle, the negative emissions keep accumulating, thus presenting what is probably the most radical tool in reducing emissions. (Renewables like solar, wind or hydropower are all "carbon neutral" at best; biochar based bioenergy and biofuel systems are "carbon-negative".)

The potential for these systems has been estimated: they can reverse climate change if implemented on a global scale in agricultural soils, and if slash-and-burn practises are transformed into slash-and-char.


  • Cornell University: Biochar Soil Biogeochemistry. [33]
  • International Biochar Initiative. [34]
  • Biochar at the UNFCCC (Bali) / UNCCD: [35].
  • Lehmann, J.: 2007, 'A handful of carbon', Nature 447, 143-144. [36]
  • Amonette, J, et al. "Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration with Biochar: A Preliminary Assessment of its Global Potential", 2007: American Geophysical Union. [37]
  • Lehmann J 2007 "Bio-energy in the black". Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5, 381-387. [38]
  • Lehmann J and Rondon M 2006 Bio-char soil management on highly weathered soils in the humid tropics. In Uphoff N (ed.) Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems. CRC Press, Boca Raton , FL. pp.517-530. [39]
  • Lehmann, J., Gaunt, J. and Rondon, M.: 2006, 'Bio-char sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems – a review', Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11, 403-427 [40]

Other interesting resources

  • Accounting for Indirect Land Use Change in the Life Cycle Assessment of Biofuel Supply Chains by Susan Tarka Sanchez, Jeremy Woods, Mark Akhurst, Matthew Brander, Michael O'Hare, Terence P. Dawson, Robert Edwards, Adam J. Liska and Rick Malpas, March 2012. "We analyse the use of life cycle analysis (LCA) for estimating the carbon intensity of biofuel production from indirect land-use change (ILUC). Two approaches are critiqued: direct, attributional life cycle analysis and consequential life cycle analysis (CLCA)...We conclude that CLCA is applicable for estimating the historic emissions from ILUC, although improvements to the hybrid approach proposed, coupled with regular updating, are required, and uncertainly values must be adequately represented; however, the scope and the depth of the expansion of the system boundaries required for CLCA remain controversial." [41]
  • The dilemma of indirect land-use changes in EU biofuel policy – An empirical study of policy-making in the context of scientific uncertainty by Lorenzo Di Lucia, Serina Ahlgren, Karin Ericsson, 2011. "The potential impact of policies promoting transport biofuels on the use of land due to the indirect effects of feedstock cultivation has generated a controversy in the EU. Policy-makers are urged to regulate the matter without conclusive scientific evidence concerning the scale and severity of indirect land-use change (iLUC). By looking at this situation as an instance of policy making in the context of scientific uncertainty, this study analyses ways to deal with iLUC of biofuels policies learning from policy fields where similar dilemmas were confronted in the past. The experience with technologies such as genetically modified organisms, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power and radioactive waste, and transport biofuels is instructive for this purpose. Policy approaches identified in the case studies are applied to the case of iLUC."
  • Biofuels: indirect land use change and climate impact (PDF) by H.J. Croezen, G.C. Bergsma, M.B.J. Otten and M.P.J. van Valkengoed, June 2010. "The objectives of this study are to compile the available recent literature on ILUC emissions, compare these emissions with the assumed gains of biofuels, assess how ILUC changes the carbon balance of using biofuels and formulate policies to avoid these extra emissions associated with ILUC."

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