photo: trasroid/Creative Commons
The old spectre of indirect land-use change and biofuels again rears its head: A new report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy looks at the increase in greenhouse gas emissions that could result from plans to expand biofuel use within the European Union and concludes that not only will a whole bunch more land will have to be put under cultivation, but also that the resultant emissions will be significantly more than from fossil fuels. Here are the relevant stats from the report:
When you take into account the indirect land-use changes from expanding biofuel use past 2020 (when they will provide 9.5% of transportation fuel), an extra 27-56 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year will be emitted.
To grow the plants to produce that fuel--90% of that fuel is expected to come from food crops--an area of land the size of Ireland will be needed, about 69,000 square kilometers.
Over the next decade the extra biofuels used in the EU will be on average 81-176% worse for the climate than fossil fuels.
When this land in Indonesia was still a forest it absorbed massive amounts of carbon, in addition to supporting vast amounts of life. Once planted with oil palms it will provide palm oil, which is in large amounts of food products and has high yields for biodiesel. The plantations though absorb far less carbon than the forest and mean the total emissions from that biodiesel can be higher than petroleum-based diesel. Photo: Wakx/Creative Commons.
Land Absorbs Different Amounts of Carbon Depending on Use
For those who are scratching their head at the mention of indirect land-use change: The idea is that a given area of land can absorb differing amounts of carbon depending on what it's used for. Forests generally absorb the most, down through wild grasslands, mixed uses or land transitioning between cultivation and non-cultivation, industrial monocrop agriculture.
This difference in carbon storage potential of the land isn't always (seldom in fact) included in the calculations done by biofuels manufacturers when comparing the fuel they produce to fossil fuels, even though in extreme cases (when crops are grown on peat soils, for example) a more complete accounting of the entire fuel production process shows that the emissions are actually much higher than burning fossil fuels--even if the production of fossil fuels is far from environmentally benign.
Land Could Come From Fields No Longer Cultivated
Defending the EU strategy, Reuters reminds us, the European Commission's energy team says that most of this land will come from recultivating abandoned farmland in Europe and Asia.
The official statement: "The EU has sufficient amount of land previously used for crop production and now no longer in arable use to cover the land needed. It makes sense to bring this land into use."
Just Because It's Good Agricultural Land Doesn't Mean It's the Best Use For It
There are lots of devil's lurking in the details of recultivating abandoned farmland. As with claims that biofuels can be grown on marginal agricultural land, it's quite likely that you are still changing existing land-use (possibly with lower environmental impact and greater carbon storage potential than intensive agriculture) and displacing both people and animals in the process. In the balance, perhaps the greater good is served by doing so, but this is by no means assured and needs to be carefully considered. Just because land isn't currently used in crop production, and is suitable for it, doesn't mean it ought to be brought back into use.
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More on Biofuels:
Biofuels Falling Well Short of Green Standards in the UK
UK Biofuels Target Should Be Reduced to Protect Tropical Forests: Government Climate Advisors
Cellulosic Biofuels May Be No Better Than First Generation Fuels, Here's Why
Biofuel's Bumpy Road: The Trials and Tribulations of Algae, Palm Oil, Bioelectricity, Feedstocks & Birds