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Posted on on March 19th, 2016
by Pincas Jawetz (

IIASA study assesses land use impacts of EU biofuel policy

Laxenburg Austria, 16 March 2016 – The indirect impacts of biofuel production on land use change and greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union vary widely depending on the type of biofuel, according to a study published last week.

{The Study Argues – this is our insert}
Biofuel policy in the European Union has been under scrutiny for several years, with intense debate around its efficiency in reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Indeed, biofuel production can take up agricultural land otherwise used for food and feed, and lead to land use conversion elsewhere that would offset some of the climate benefits of the policy, a problem known as indirect land use change. In a new study for the European Commission in partnership with the sustainable energy consultancies Ecofys and E4tech, IIASA researchers have now brought more precise insight to the topic, showing the different levels of impact that different biofuels have on land use change and the climate.

The study revisits the impacts of biofuels consumed in the European Union and is the most comprehensive comparison to date of land use effects across feedstocks. It provides the first analysis, in a consistent modeling framework, of both conventional (or first-generation) biofuels, produced from food crops such as vegetable oil, and advanced (or second-generation) biofuels, produced from residues or energy crops such as grasses, forestry residues and cereal straw.

IIASA researcher Hugo Valin led the modeling for the study. He says, “First generation biofuels have been criticized in the past due to their indirect land use change impact, which our study confirms. But by looking at a much broader range of biofuel options, we clearly show that not all biofuels are equal.”

On one end of the spectrum, the study shows that certain types of vegetable oils, such palm or soybean oil, can lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions. It also shows that impacts of ethanol feedstocks are relatively lower than for biodiesel, in particular for high yielded crops such as sugar beet or maize. And on the other end of the spectrum, second generation crops, included for the first time in the analysis for the EU, showed a good performance overall with in several cases net negative emissions.
{This part is a very wise conclusion with which we can completely agree – our insert}

The study also included mitigation scenarios which showed that promoting agricultural expansion on European land compared to the rest of the world would help reducing the impacts in the short run. However, in the long run, the most efficient policy for limiting land-based greenhouse gas emissions would be a better control of agricultural land expansion globally, through policies to preserve forests and other natural ecosystems which can sequester large amounts of carbon including peatlands in Southeast Asia.

The study also included an in-depth analysis of uncertainties in the scenarios to better inform stakeholders. While in some cases uncertainties can be large, the study clearly indicates how impacts of different policy orientations compare.

Valin says, “It’s impossible to remove all uncertainties in such an analysis, but the real value of this study is that it helps decision makers to better anticipate the potential implications of the option they choose. Models help to develop a common understanding of what the problems at stake are and how to mitigate them. In the context of biofuel policies this is especially true, as modeling illustrates the trade-offs between greenhouse gas emissions, food consumption, land occupation, agricultural income, and other issues.”

More information
Ecofys: Report quantifies land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU


We, at SustainabiliTank, find some problems with above study based on our own experience.

Years ago – end of seventies-beginning of eighties – we published via US Congressional hearings about land use and industrial liquid biofuels production. Our argument was that agriculture in industrialized countries is managed by government policy. This was clearly true in the US, and I was approached by the newly formed Brussels based EU Agriculture Commissioner who was interested in that analysis of policy for the EU States as well.

The argument was that the various Departments of Agriculture support the price of food commodities by limiting their production or simply put – by paying farmers NOT TO PRODUCE or keep land out of production. My argument was to use that land – the so called SET-ASIDES – for the new industry of liquid biofuels and stop non-production-subsidies. I went so far as to calculate that for the US I could PRODUCE ETHANOL FROM CORN THAT WAS NOT GROWN AND PAY FOR IT WITH MONEY THAT WAS NOT SPENT. That testimony caused – because of request from Members of Congress – to my being hired as a consultant by the Office of the Comptroller General Of the United States – the US GAO – the General Accounting Office – in order to have them check out those arguments. Surely they found that there was a base for my arguments. They also found that the reduction of the quantities of agricultural commodity produced was much smaller then expected because, naturally, the farmer kept out of production the worst parts of their land. The funniest part was that agricultural corporations would switch the non-production claims from one commodity o another contingent on which ‘asides” provided higher subsidies that year – one year it could have been historic corn, but another year it could have been a claim of not growing wheat.

Whatever, at least for the EU and the US – the “set aside” policy is just public money dished out to the large farming industry for no good purpose and the concept of “hunger in China” just did not hold water. Environmentalists in this context did rather play up to the big oil and farming interests rather then my perception of reduction of dependence on petroleum. Surely, this is different when replacing natural forests in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil with oil- producing palm trees in the tropics. In those cases the damage to the environment is real. But not when we talk about the vast already deforested agricultural expances of Europe and America. Further, it is clear to us that in a globalized world – producing those commodities in smaller farms overseas, and subsistence farming, would save CO2 emissions that occur in the transport of those commodities originating in highly agriculture-industrialized economies – albeit this means lower take in the industrialized countries, lower need for food production by industrialized countries, and a parallel gain in employment by therural sector in non-industrialized countries we usually define as Developing Countries.

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