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Land conversion undermines biofuels

Globe and Mail Update

SUBJECT: The environmental impact of biofuels.

SIGNIFICANCE: Recent studies indicate that biofuel production is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions. This suggests that some biofuels could have a greater environmental impact than burning fossil fuels, if the cost of land conversion is taken into account.

ANALYSIS: Increasing problems from climate change, the rising cost of oil, and a global surge in energy consumption have led to a race to develop environmentally-friendly biofuels, such as palm oil or ethanol derived from corn and sugar cane, and develop policies to increase their production and consumption: The EU has proposed that 5.75 per cent of all fuel used in transport should come from biofuels by the end of 2008, rising to 10 per cent by 2020.

The United States aims to replace 15 per cent of fuel for transport with biofuels by 2022, rising to 30 per cent by 2030.

An Inter-American Development Bank study shows that 40 out of 50 countries surveyed on six The Globe and Mailcontinents have introduced legislation to promote biofuel production.

Carbon deception. Even though its market has expanded significantly in recent years, biofuels have faced fierce criticism, mainly for their impact global food prices. Moreover, recent studies published in the journal Science indicate that biofuel production is likely to increase overall greenhouse gas emissions levels. Other research suggests that the production cycle for some biofuels could have a greater environmental impact than burning fossil fuels.

Most prior studies found that substituting biofuels for petroleum would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of feedstock. However, these analyses did not take into account the emissions effects of the vast amount of land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuel development:

Forest and grassland. Ploughing up more forest or grassland releases much of the carbon previously stored in plants and soils into the atmosphere through decomposition or fire. Loss of maturing forests and grasslands also prevents carbon sequestration that occurs as plants grow. This leads to a net increase in emissions.

Wetlands. In South-east Asia, most wetlands have deep organic soils. When drained for agriculture, these tend to decompose rapidly, emitting huge volumes of carbon.

Croplands. Diverting existing crops or croplands to biofuels increases carbon emissions indirectly. It leads to higher crop prices, which means more clearing of forests and grassland to increase cropland for feed and food.

Carbon debt. Carbon dioxide released due to land change is referred to as ‘carbon debt'. Over time, biofuels from converted land could repay this if their production and combustion has net emissions that are lower than life cycle emissions from the fossil fuels they displace. Recent studies have shown that land use changes, due to the increased biofuel crop production, result in vast carbon debts that will take decades to repay, based on current estimates of fossil fuel displacement:

Brazil. Converting Amazon rain forest to soybean biodiesel will generate a carbon debt that will take some 320 years to repay. The carbon debt from sugarcane ethanol production on converted wooded grassland could be repaid in 17 years.

Indonesia and Malaysia. The carbon debt from converting lowland tropical rain forest to palm biodiesel would take 86 years to repay, while the carbon debt from converting peatland tropical rain forest to palm production would take over 420 years.

United States. Conversion of central US grassland to corn ethanol production creates a carbon debt that would take about 48 years to repay.

Increased biofuel production is causally related to price surges in agricultural commodities. Higher prices triggered by biofuels will accelerate forest and grassland conversion even if surplus croplands exist elsewhere.

Greener biofuel. Governments and companies are investing large sums in developing more efficient, environmentally friendly biofuels. Second-generation biofuel technology could dramatically change the global competitive landscape, but since emissions from changes in land use would be significant for any biofuels that use productive land, the biofuels that emit the lowest amount of carbon dioxide are those that do not require crops to be raised. There are several possible greener biofuels:

Cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to become commercially available on a large scale within the next five to eight years. Cellulose might come from a variety of sources, such as grass, trees and agricultural waste. However, if cellulosic ethanol is produced from crops or plants grown using productive land, it will have large carbon costs given emissions from change in land use. Potentially beneficial sources include municipal and industrial wastes or agricultural wastes, such as the non-grain portions of corn, or rice straw.

Marginal land. Biofuel produced on lands that generate little carbon today might keep land use change emissions low, but the ability to produce biofuel abundantly on unproductive lands remains questionable.

Sugarcane. Under certain conditions, sugarcane might be a biofuel source that provides greenhouse benefits. In Brazil, sugarcane, most of which is used for energy, already is grown extremely efficiently. There is scope for even greater efficiency gains.

Biofuel policies. As governments, companies and organizations become more aware of the implications of land use change for biofuel production, policies on biofuels are likely to be re-evaluated:

EU. The European Commission has indicated that the EU would re-examine its policy on biofuels after admitting that the environmental and social impact of producing the crops may be greater than originally thought. The issue was recently addressed with proposals for regulations stipulating that imported biofuels cannot come from land that was previously rain forest. Critics argue that this safeguard would not solve the problem. Instead, it would require biofuel producers to use existing cropland. However, farmers still would plough up new lands to replace crops for food and feed.

UN. The UN Environmental Program recently established a panel to study the impact of land use change on biofuel production costs. The new International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management (IPSRM) will provide scientific assessments and expert advice on the use, intensity, security of supplies and environmental impacts of selected products and services on a global level. Its findings are likely to have an impact on government policy-making.

United States. Recent studies in the journal Science have created pressure from eminent researchers and environmental think tanks on the US government to reform biofuel policies. Eventual changes in European policies also might influence US policy makers.

CONCLUSION: Although biofuel production cannot be solely blamed for deforestation and grassland conversion problems, it notably increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional diesel when factoring in emissions from land use changes. This criticism adds to existing concerns about the negative impact of biofuels on food prices and food security, and is likely to have implications on national and international policy-making.

From the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief

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Founded in 1975, Oxford Analytica's 1,000+ analysts provide international organizations with monitoring, research and consultancy services that explore the strategic implications of policy, economic, financial, industry, trade and security developments around the world.

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