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Biofuel policies navigate between Scylla and Charybdis

By Felix Creutzig

Governments seek to mitigate climate change and make their countries energy independent. Biofuels seemed to achieve both: sequestering the carbon they emit, biofuels were considered carbon neutral; they also rely on intra-regional resources, notable land, and reduce oil imports.

But study after study points to unforeseen dangers. The current aggressive deployment of biofuels compromise food security; and perversely, biofuel production contributes to climate change by releasing carbon formerly stored in soil and forests (indirect land use change, ILUC).

The European Commission finally awakes to this challenge. The Guardian reports that the Commission aims to reduce the mandated quota of biofuels from 10% to 5% in
2020, a level that is already achieved now. Equally important, indirect land-use change will be part of the metric.

If policy makers reduce quotas, forests, peat lands, and food production gain maneuvering space. The EU would directly alleviate land-based ecosystem and communities from potentially harmful pressure. But what are the implications of the ILUC factor?

Chris Malins published his research on
precisely this question in Global Change Biology last month. Malins is confident that “introducing iLUC factors will make the policies more effective and will greatly reduce the risks of doing more harm than good”. In his model (given a required 50% thresholds on carbon savings), “there is a 94% chance that introducing iLUC factors would improve the carbon saving per unit of energy achieved by EU biofuels policy by at least 20 percentage points, with an expected benefit of 49 percentage points, i.e. iLUC factors would be expected to be a very effective policy intervention”.

The implications for the European biodiesel industry are devastating; European biodiesel production seems currently unable to meet the requirements, biodiesel would be pushed out of business. Understandably, the biodiesel lobby is outraged.

But if a policy designed to mitigate climate change, instead aggravates climate change, it remains the right decision to change course. The ILUC policy in particular is suitable to navigate the climate-change Scylla of fossil-fuel dependency and the climate-change Charybdis of land-based emissions: the ILUC factors put pressure on markets to come up with low-emitting second-generation biofuels (long announced but hardly been seen so far).

Is this the end of the line, or just a foot in the door? I would argue that a revised EU regulation of ILUC is just the entry point for something much bigger, allowing science and policies to grow to meet the tremendous challenges we are facing. The main issue is the interconnectedness of energy, food and climate dynamics and policies.

Scientifically, what is the counter-factual fossil fuel used for bio-refineries? Which combination of food, fuel, and forest policies leads to what kind of land use (emission) outcome? I am certainly not the only one to suggest that the true relevance of biofuel policies only reveals itself in the context of world agricultural politics, food demand, and forest protection efforts.

Politically, why should biofuels be carefully discriminated against their global warming potential (what I fully support), when food production is not? How does the effectiveness of ILUC regulation depend on the proper and stringent enforcement and continuation of carbon prices for fossil fuel, and caps?

The Scylla and Charybdis of biofuel policies is only one adventurous incidence of a much larger Odyssey.

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