Industry-backed study finds significantly lower emissions from biodiesel

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 6, 2013

Indirect land-use change caused by producing diesel made from soybeans, palm oil and other plants generates significantly lower emissions than previously thought, according to an industry-backed study released Monday.

The study by researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and two private consulting firms found that a previous European model that measured indirect land-use changes overestimated emissions by up to 79 percent for some types of biodiesel. Lower emissions resulted from less land converted per 1,000 liters of biodiesel produced and less predicted forest conversion.

The researchers conducted the study at the behest of the European Biodiesel Board, the European Oilseed Alliance and the E.U. Vegetable Oil and Proteinmeal Industry using an updated model called GTAP. The same model was used to measure land-use changes by California for its low carbon fuel standard.

“This work has found that indirect land use emissions calculated using the latest version of GTAP are much less” than the European model, the researchers wrote. “There is reason to believe that the indirect emissions could be even lower if GTAP was further enhanced.”

Indirect land-use change caused by biofuels, or the idea that growing crops for biofuel production causes lands to be cleared elsewhere to make up for lost food production, remains a controversial subject. Several studies show high emissions, while others demonstrate negligible impacts.

The authors of the new analysis compare their results to a 2011 study by the International Food Policy Institute that estimated the effects of the European Union’s target of increasing renewable fuel use to 10 percent of road transportation energy by 2020. It found indirect land-use biodiesel emissions ranging from 52 to 56 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent released per megajoule of biofuel, and ethanol emissions ranging from seven to 14 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent.

According to the new study, emissions from soybean biodiesel are expected to be 50 percent less, emissions from palm biodiesel 56 percent less, emissions from rapeseed oil 65 percent less and emissions from other biodiesel up to 79 percent less than what the International Food Policy Institute’s study found.

The decreases are due to higher expected yields on new cropland and less forestland being converted because of the addition of cropland in the Untied States and Brazil, the researchers said. Emissions would be lower, they predicted, if the model was enhanced to reflect the availability of fallow land and cropland pasture in more regions of the world.

The study did not evaluate ethanol produced from corn or sugar cane. It did project, however, that indirect land-use change emissions from wheat ethanol would be 33 percent less than the IFPI model suggested, while emissions from sugar beet ethanol were expected to be 136 percent higher.

The new study comes just a couple of months after an analysis by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research showed that the indirect land-use change calculations used by the European Commission were inconclusive and projected biodiesel would produce 80 percent less emissions than the 2011 International Food Policy Institute study found.

It also comes in the midst of an active debate in the United States on the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels and on the eve of a key vote in the European Parliament to decide whether to cap food-based biofuels at 5.5 percent of the European Union’s transportation fuel. E.U. legislators backing the limit have cited greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land-use changes as a key factor influencing their decision to lower it from the current 10 percent level.

“Using farm land to produce biofuel crops reduces the area available for food crops,” the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety said in advancing the legislation. “This adds to pressure to free up more land, e.g. through deforestation, to grow more food — a process known as indirect land use change” (Greenwire, July 11).

Ethanol currently accounts for 19.9 percent of the biofuel consumed in Europe, while biodiesel makes up most of the rest. According to the EurObserv’ER barometer, which releases an annual European biofuels report, overall biofuel consumption within the European Union grew 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2012 and last year accounted for 4.7 percent of E.U. transportation fuel.

If the European Union is successful in passing the legislation to curb food-based biofuel use, it could increase the pressure on the United States to take similar measures, renewable fuel experts have said.

Other committees in the E.U. Parliament have indicated, though, that they would oppose the cap during the vote next week, as well as the indirect land-use change factors cited in the policy.

Raffaello Garofalo, secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board, said that he believed the new analysis showed that policymakers could “no longer deny the immaturity of science to serve for policy making.”