Report quantifies land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU

Published: 10/03/2016

Land Use Change effects differ significantly for various types of biofuels consumed in the EU. Today, the European Commission has published a report by Ecofys, IIASA and E4tech that quantifies the ILUC emissions from EU biofuel consumption. ILUC, or Indirect Land Use Change, is the net global expansion of agricultural land at the expense of natural land to accommodate for biofuel feedstock cultivation. The effect leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Biofuels are an important option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. However, the feedstock for most biofuels requires land, and an increase in biofuels could therefore lead to the expansion of agricultural land elsewhere, at the cost of carbon stocks in forests and peatlands. While the direct environmental performance of biofuels has to meet EU-wide sustainability requirements, this indirect impact is difficult to control and it cannot be observed or measured in reality, because it is entangled with a large number of other changes in agricultural markets at both global and local levels. The effect can only be estimated through the use of models. The European Commission is directed to assess the ILUC effect, which requires a firm understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

The study now published estimates Land Use Change impacts of both conventional and advanced biofuels consumed in the EU. The modelling approach and input parameters are based on the best available science and literature, and involved the participation of many stakeholders to improve the quality of the model and underlying data. However, as in any modelling study, a number relies on many assumptions and uncertainties remain. One assumption is that biofuels are always the last entrant to the market.

The results show that Land Use Change effects vary significantly depending on the type of biofuel. The EU consumption of biodiesel produced from vegetable oils has a very large Land Use Change emission impact, which is mainly due to the considerable emission effect of peatland drainage for palm oil plantations in South East Asia. Conventional ethanol consumption has moderate LUC emission effects, while some advanced biofuels can even lead to negative LUC emissions.

The study also shows that overall LUC emissions can be mitigated via several routes, most effectively ending deforestation and peatland drainage in Southeast Asia, which would almost nullify the LUC emission impact.

The study can be accessed here: The copyright lies with the European Commission.