Following our recent post on sustainability and land use changes, we include here a new study on land use changes that challenges the EU commission regarding biofuels. A new study in the United States evaluating land use changes for several biofuel feedstocks and policies in the European Union has projected much lower estimates for land use changes.

Land-use change occurs when land is converted to biofuel feedstock production from other uses. Some researchers have raised concerns as to whether land use conversions from other uses (for example, pasture or forest) actually reduced the biofuel greenhouse gas benefit. Thus, some land use change analyses resulted in lower biofuel targets in 2020.

Land use emissions are generally stated in grams of CO2 equivalent per Megajoule of  biofuel, or gCO2e/MJ. The EU uses a 20-year period to sum the emissions due to land  conversion, and also biofuel production on the converted land.

The European Biodiesel Board (EBB) reviewed the IFPRI extensively and had a number of concerns with the study including the yield of crops on new land, the high proportion of forest converted, the high degree of substitutability between oilseeds, and the poor  mass balance for the oilseed sector (oil and meal production was less than the quantity of  seed crushed). Recently, EBB initiated additional work on land use emissions of biofuels  using updated economic modeling, which is the subject of this study. This study used an updated economic general equilibrium model developed by Purdue University called the  Global Trade Analysis Project, or GTAP. The MIRAGE model used previously utilizes  the GTAP database modified by IFPRI. GTAP has been used in the U.S. to estimate  land use changes by the State of California for its Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The  model is undergoing constant development and peer review.

The results of the new study Land Use Change Greenhouse Gas emissions of European Biofuel Policies Utilizing the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP), which employed an updated version of the GTAP model, showed that less land would be converted for EU biofuels production.

The reductions in cropland for the different biodiesel feedstocks ranged from 18 to 70 percent less compared with a previous study.

Marginal lands, biofuels and Land Use Changes

As we often post in our blog, bioenergy crops can occupy large areas with marginal lands today considered abandoned or with low competitiveness.

Desertification could be avoid through green covers and in particular promoting grasslands as perennial bioenergy crops

Desertification could be avoid through green covers and in particular promoting grasslands as perennial bioenergy crops in marginal areas

The study claims: “There is a very strong reason to believe that the indirect emissions would be even lower if  GTAP was further enhanced to be able to more accurately reflect the availability of  fallow land and cropland pasture in more regions than just the United States and Brazil.  The reduction in ILUC emissions could be significant with these enhancements. Other GTAP model enhancements that need to be considered include further tuning of the  factor that selects the quantity of land converted from forest versus pasture. This would also consider the regional restrictions that have effectively stopped forest land conversion in the EU, the United States and Canada.

Download the publication here.