I Say Sustainable, You Say…

The Guardian newspaper reported last week that environmental activist and reporter George Monbiot had successfully petitioned Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban an ad containing the tagline, “Biofuels — A Lower-Priced, Sustainable Answer to OPEC’s Oil.” The ad was sponsored by the Renewable Fuels Association, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association, and the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

Though Monbiot’s petition is not publicly available, the ASA’s adjudication response indicates it is similar to his previously expressed opinion that “there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel.”

Monbiot, of course, bases this conclusion in part on the paper published by Searchinger et al. in SciencExpress last February. Monbiot, like many others, believes that this paper proves that biofuels production causes shifts in land use that increase greenhouse gas emissions. In point of fact the paper starts from an assumption that shifts in land use are caused by biofuels production. It therefore cannot be taken as proof. The paper states its assumptions clearly enough:

Although these estimates face several uncertainties, the general finding flows from three reliable projections. First, farmers will replace most of the grain diverted from food and feed by ethanol because the demand for overall food and feed — as opposed to any particular grain — is inelastic. Second, increases in cropland will provide most replacement grain because they are cost-effective and fast, the yield effects of biofuel demands are both positive and negative, and the world has many convertible acres – up to 170 million hectares in Brazil alone and perhaps 2.8 billion hectares worldwide. Most significantly, the potential emissions per hectare of land conversion greatly exceed the annual greenhouse reductions per hectare of biofuels.

The ASA banned the ad’s use of the word “sustainable” in part on a misinterpretation of the conclusions of “The Gallagher Review of the indirect effects of biofuels production.” The ASA’s adjudication incorrectly states that “the review considered biofuel production would result in net greenhouse emissions and loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction in the period to 2020.”

In fact, the Gallagher review states, “the balance of evidence shows a significant risk that current policies will lead to net greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction.” The review includes the Searchinger paper in the balance of evidence, but clearly recognizes that it can not be considered proof that biofuels cause indirect land use emissions. The review’s conclusions include a clear statement that “Mechanisms do not yet exist to accurately measure, or to avoid, the effects of indirect land-use change from biofuels.”


Europe to Study Indirect Land Use

The European Parliament on Dec. 17 adopted amendments to the Renewable Energy Sources Directive, raising targets for production of biofuels but at the same time setting strict sustainability standards to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the use of road transport fuels. The Parliament’s adopted text makes clear that it intends to calculate climate change emissions from international land use, but that the science is not currently available to do so:

(11) In calculating the greenhouse gas impact of land conversion, economic operators should be able to use actual values for the carbon stocks associated with the reference land use and the land use after conversion. They should also be able to use standard values. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the appropriate basis for this. That work is not currently expressed in a form that is immediately usable by economic operators.”

The text also includes this assessment of the risk of indirect land use change and the need for an accurate measurement:

(18) Even if biofuels themselves are made using raw materials from land already in arable use, the net increase in demand for crops caused by the promotion of biofuels could lead to a net increase in the cropped area. This could be into high carbon stock land, in which case there would be damaging carbon stock losses. To alleviate this risk, it is appropriate to introduce accompanying measures to encourage an increased rate of productivity increases on land already used for crops; the use of degraded land; and the adoption of sustainability requirements, comparable to those laid down in this Directive for EU biofuel consumption, in other biofuel-consuming jurisdictions. The Commission shall develop a concrete methodology to minimise greenhouse gas emissions caused by indirect land use changes. In doing this the Commission shall analyse, on the basis of best available scientific evidence, in particular, inter alia, the inclusion of a factor for indirect land use changes in the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions and the need to incentivise sustainable biofuels which minimise the impacts of land use change and improve biofuel sustainability with respect to indirect land use change. In developing this methodology, the Commission should inter alia address the potential indirect land use change effects of biofuels produced from non-food cellulosic material and from ligno-cellulosic material.”

The agreed upon amendments to Directive 98/70/EC include a two-year study of indirect land use change that is to include methods to ensure that sustainable biofuels avoid causing land use change:

7d. (6). The Commission shall, by 31 December 2010, submit a report to the European Parliament and to the Council reviewing the impact of indirect land use change on greenhouse gas emissions and addressing ways to minimise this impact. This report shall where appropriate be accompanied, in particular by a proposal, based on the best available scientific evidence, containing a concrete methodology for emissions from carbon stock changes caused by indirect land use changes, ensuring compliance with this Directive, in particular Article 7b(2).”

Annex IV. Rules for Calculating Life Cycle Greenhouse Emissions from Biofuels, includes the calculation of GHG reductions for different types of biofuels without land use change.

Note that the U.S. Energy Security and Independence Act also called for a National Academies study of indirect land use impact, to be completed within 18 months of the law’s enactment. That study has not been funded.