U.S. scientists, economists urge EU to recognize, account for effects of indirect land-use change as part of lifecycle analyses of GHG emissions from biofuels, say growing biofuels crops can up GHGs by converting forests, grasslands to farmland

WASHINGTON , October 7, 2011 (press release) – Letter from More Than 150 Scientists and Economists Shows broad scientific consensus on the importance of land use impacts in carbon calculations for biofuels production

Today, a group of more than 150 scientists and economists from around the world delivered a letter to the European Commission calling for recognizing and accounting for indirect land use change impacts as a part of the lifecycle analyses of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biofuels.

A large body of peer-reviewed research from the last several years finds that growing crops for conventional biofuels can indirectly result in substantial GHG emissions through converting forests and grasslands to croplands or pasture to accommodate biofuel production. The European Union has set a target to source 10 percent of its transport fuels from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, until 2020.

“Without addressing land use change, the European Union's target for renewable energy in transport may fail to deliver genuine carbon savings in the real world,” the letter states. “It could end up as merely an exercise on paper that promotes widespread deforestation and higher food prices.”

The letter comes as the Commission prepares to announce the rules and accounting methods for calculating the indirect land use change impacts of increased biofuels production. These rules will play a large role in determining which biofuels will count towards the 10 percent target and qualify for financial support, and the scientists’ letter states that the emissions associated with indirect land use change are too significant to ignore.

“There are uncertainties inherent in estimating the magnitude of indirect land use emissions from biofuels, but a policy that implicitly or explicitly assigns a value of zero is clearly not supported by the science,” the letter states. “All the studies of land use change indicate that the emissions related to biofuels expansion are significant and can be quite large.”

The statement follows a September 15 report from the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee that criticized current accounting methods for bioenergy (PDF). It warned that current biofuels policies may actually lead to increased carbon emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which organized the scientists’ and economists’ letter, has also organized related statements to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) and the California Air Resources Board (PDF) arguing that these bodies should include indirect land use change emissions in biofuels policies. In both cases the final regulations accounted for these indirect emissions, and a U.S. National Academy of Sciences report issued earlier this week underscored the importance of including indirect land use emissions (PDF) in the assessment of biofuels’ environmental impacts.

UCS has compiled more information regarding the challenges and opportunities biofuels production presents through its Smart Bioenergy program.

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