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Special case 2010: the ILUC factor debate

The potential and limitations of reducing indirect land use change effects of biofuels by standard setting measures


Fierce debate has been generated over the past few years about the indirect land use changes caused by agrofuel production, the so-called iLUC. How can we explain iLUC, and  what does it have to do with standard setting?  Land use that has been replaced by agrofuel production, such as cattle ranching or food production, mostly moves elsewhere. This often leads to extra deforestation and degradation of ecosystems outside the biofuel production areas, and (caused by this)  leads to CO2 emissions that often even outweigh the benefits of biofuel use vs fossil fuels. How to limit these indirect effects on landscapes with subsequent  greenhouse gas, biodiversity and livelihoods consequences, if they can be limited at all? Especially the issue of net greenhouse gas reduction efficiency is a reason for  industry, environmentalists and policy makers to be keen on this discussion. What can the role of standard setting and certification be, if an iLUC factor would be obligatory to account for the real greenhouse gas reduction efficiency of a biofuel crop?

The countries that were the first to set sustainability criteria for biofuels  UK, Germany and the Netherlands, have all lowered their original targets mainly because of  the indirect effects on landscapes, and are strong proponents of accounting for iLUC. The EU Renewable Energy Directive (2008) elaborates on indirect effects on landscapes but does not yet offer solutions how to account for or avoid these effects when its legislation comes into force in 2011. The Dutch policy makers are now (2010) proposing to introduce a general iLUC factor in European standards for all (agro-) biofuels, until a better elaborated crop-specific iLUC factor can be introduced in 2014, which then should be reviewed every 2 years. Crops with a low iLUC risk should be prioritized by special policy measures in any case. It seems that consensus is growing that accounting for ilUC is complex and contentious, and that in any case the following should be prioritized: (1) biofuels that are land-less or very land extensive (incl wastes, residues) (2) crops and cropping systems with low iLUC risks, as well as (3) biofuel production on lands which are not suitable for food production and not crucial for biodiversity (the real degraded, marginal, idle lands). 


Some argue that only sugarcane would survive the iLUC measurement if done well, and thus remains as the only main crop really feasible for greenhouse gas reduction purposes. Reason for Brasil to be very interested in an iLUC factor... But sugarcane too cannot expand endlessly without causing major damages to landscapes and ecosystems, and the labor conditions are often worrisome. The use of lands by pastoralists or gatherers is hardly if ever mentioned in any elaboration of iLUC.... So how does  iLUC-proof standard setting -if it would indeed become accepted policy makers- relate to a proper land use planning and social conditions? The overarching question  is, does iLUC, as a factor in standard setting, create an illusion of control, or are we on the right pathway in finding solutions given the pressing need for alternative energy sources? As always, there tend to be believers and sceptics about the governability of these effects.  Judge for yourselves...We propose some documents to start and then give a selective list of 30 recommended readings.  Below this list we discuss a number of additional useful documents (2007-2009) that were uploaded earlier in the Livelihoods section.


Some highlights

IUCN (2009) has published a small paper and a statement about indirect effects of bioenergy on landcapes. Both may serve as a first introduction to contextualize iLUC. Do not skip the TE & Birdlife advise to the European Commission on ILUC, a strong piece of work, reflecting state of the art knowledge  (2010) . CE (2010) reviewed the legal mandate of the EU to introduce an iLUC factor. The EU itself ( JRC/IPTS 2010) also reviewed the potential effects of the EU biofuels targets on agricultural markets and land use. Fritsche (et al) from OKO institute (2009) has a much-referred-to powerpoint explaining iLUC and more recently (2010) issued a working document to assess whether an iLUC factor is a good tool to mitigate GHG increase by biofuels production.

Impactful for the debate on iLUC has been the comprehensive Gallagher Review of the Renewable Fuels Agency (2008), it concluded that the introduction of biofuels should be slowed until effective contyrols are in place to prevent land use change (and higher food prices). It promoted the use of idle and marginal lands, the use of wastes and residues and the development of second generation biofuels.  Searchinger (2008 etc) was one of the first scientists to spark this scientific debate about severely negative greenhouse gas consequences of biofuels due to land use changes.  SCOPE (2009)  presents the results of a "rapid assessment" workshop on the environmental (incl indirect) effects of biofuel technologies. More than 75 scientists from 21 countries and representing a diversity of disciplines participated.   To account for the (indirect) effects of UK biofuel policy on greenhouse gas emissions FOE, Scott Wilson (2009) developed a special spreadsheet. ODI (2008) wrote a study for DFID (UK) on the ILUC subject. Last not least, view the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency/ PBL (2010) studies on indirect effects, among which iLUC. Are there other "escape routes" possible, such as growing palm oil on degraded Imperata grasslands in Indonesia, or on other "Responsible Cultivation Areas", as Ecofys/WWF (2010) propose? Next to the advise to use lands with "no provisioning services" the authors propose measures such as increased productivity of biomass cultivation systems to avoid unnecessary expansion, and/or integration with other uses such as cattle ranching (cattle eating bagasse from sugarcane) to avoid the cattle moving elsewhere. Self evidently, in avoiding indirect effects, direct effects, such as deforestation for biofuel cultivation areas, should be avoided in the very first place.

Also the inter-governmental organizations have taken action to discuss and address the topic of iLUC. UNEP (2009) believe that mapping and zoning of areas suitable and available for biomass for energy is a away to avoid ILUC as well as measures proposed by the Gallagher review. They did a mapping exercise in Kenya, Uganda and Senegal. FAO has a special project on bioenergy and its connections to food security,( BEFS ) with case studies of Thailand, Peru and Tanzania. Check the website of the Global Bioenergy Partnership (of the UN and other international organizations and governments) about the latest of criteria and indicators including ILUC. Somewhat chaotic but up to date a page on the website of the Roundtable of Sustainable Biofuels keeps tracks of materials appearing on the subject of ILUC. 



Action Aid (2010) Meals per gallon, industrial biofuels and hunger.pdf   

CE (2010) Legal Briefing ILUC Mandate.pdf 

Danielsen et al (2008) Biofuel Plantations on Forested lands Conservation Biology 1-12.pdf

DPRN (2010) Burning Questions Summary of Debate on Agrofuels Feb 2010.pdf

Ecofys (2010) Responsible Cultivation Areas methodology.pdf

ECOFYS, WWF (2010) Responsible Cultivation Areas, Indonesia.pdf

FAO/BEFS: http://www.fao.org/bioenergy/foodsecurity/befs/en/

FERN (2008) When the solution is the problem.pdf

FOE, Scott Wilson( 2009) a spreadsheet model for effects UK policy. explanatory note(1).pdf

Global Bioenergy Partnership webpage on criteria

Fritsche et al (2010) The iLUC factor as a means to hedge risks.pdf

Fritsche (2009) Energy GHG balance and direct & indirect effects.pdf

Hooijer, Silvius et al (2006) PEAT CO2 Assessment of CO2 emissions from drained wetlands in SE Asia.pdf

IUCN (2009) Indirect effects of bioenergy on landscapes and livelihoods.pdf

IUCN (2009) Statement on EC ILUC Pre-Consulation 31Jul09.pdf

Jiwan (2009) Macro effects of agrofuels production in Indonesia.pdf

JRC, IPTS (2010) Impacts EU biofuel target on agr markets and land use.pdf 

Lapola et al (2010) ILUC can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil.pdf 

Novo et al (2010) Biofuels, diary and beef in Sao Paulo State, In Journ of Peasant Studies.pdf

ODI (2008) Review indirect effects biofuels- Economic benefits_and_food_insecurity.pdf 

PBL, Prins et al (2010) Are models suitable for determining ILUC factors.pdf

PBL, Ros et al (2010) Identifying indirect effects bio-energy production.pdf

PBL, Stehfest et al (2010) Indirect effects of BF, intensification of agricult production.pdf

Renewable Fuels Agency (2008) Gallagher Review of indirect effects of BF.pdf

Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, webpage

SCOPE (2009) Biodiversity Consequences of Increased Biofuel Production(1).pdf

Searchinger (2008) Land use change for biofuels and GHG, Science.pdf

Searchinger (2008) Response to criticisms of new Science biofuel studies.pdf 

Searchinger (2008) Land use change for biofuels and GHG - Supporting material, Science.pdf 

TE, Birdlife et al (2010) EC Joint Submission on ILUC.pdf

UNEP (2009) Assessing Biofuels, towards sust use of res.pdf


Further reading

The following additional documents were uploaded in the Livelihoods and Landscapes section until 2009.



Buddenhagen CE, Chimera C, Clifford P (2009) Assessing Biofuel Crop Invasiveness: A Case Study

This is the first attempt to quantify actual, relative or potential invasiveness of terrestrial biofuel crops at an appropriate regional or international scale. Proactive measures, such as risk assessments, should be employed to predict invasion risks.


Campbell A, Dickson Barney, Kapos V, Miles L, Scharlemann J (2009) Biofuels and biodiversity: an assessment of the impacts of biofuels on biodiversity and the appropriate policy responses

This paper presents a review of the potential biodiversity impacts of different biofuels and assesses options for limiting adverse impacts.


Kim, Kim and Dale (2009) Biofuels, Land Use Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Some Unexplored Variables

This paper examines several variables that have not yet been addressed in land use change studies and shows that cropping management is a key factor in estimating greenhouse gas emissions associated with direct/indirect land use change.


Liska et al. (2009) Improvements in Life Cycle Energy Efficiency and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Ethanol

This study suggests that corn-ethanol systems have substantially greater potential to mitigate GHG emissions and reduce dependence on imported petroleum for transportation fuels than reported previously.


Mathews and Tan (2009) Biofuels and indirect land use change effects: the debate continues

While debate on biofuels and bioenergy generally has sparked controversy over claimed greenhouse gas emissions benefits available with a switch to biomass, these claims have generally not taken into account indirect land use changes. This paper argues that indirect land use change effects are too diffuse and subject to too many arbitrary assumptions to be useful for rule-making, and that the use of direct and controllable measures would secure better results.


Sawyer (2009) Climate change, biofuels and eco-social impacts in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado

Interacting with climate change and land use, the upcoming stage of cellulosic energy could result in a collapse of the new frontier into vast degraded pasture. The present and future impacts can be mitigated through crafting of appropriate policies, not limited to the Amazon, stressing intensified and more sustainable use of areas already cleared, minimizing new clearing and consolidation of alternatives for sustainable use of natural resources by local communities.




Chatham House - Legge T (2008) The Potential Contribution of Biofuels to Sustainable Development and a Low-carbon Future.

Despite many anecdotes about their negative effects, there appears to be a small but significant role that biofuels could play in the development of a less carbon-intensive transportation sector. But the realisation of this idea depends on smart public policy that overcomes the very real problems that have been thrown up by the first generation of biofuels and the effects of imperfect policies that currently drive much biofuel production around the world.


Danielsen et al. (2008)   argue that keeping tropical rain forests intact is a better way to combat climate change than replacing them (willingly, or as an indirect effect) with biofuel plantations. This study is the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of oil palm plantations in tropical forests on climate and biodiversity according to ScienceDaily.    


Environews (2008) The Carbon Footprint of Biofuels CanWe Shrink It Down to Size in Time?

This popular paper gives an overview of research and discussions related to the carbon impact of biofuels.


Gnansounou E, Panichelli L, Dauriat A, Villegas JD (2008) Accounting for indirect land-use changes in GHG balances of biofuels

This report reviews the current efforts made worldwide to address the issue of indirect land use change due to biofuels production.


GTAP (2008) Impact of Biofuel Production on World Agricultural Markets: A Computable General Equilibrium Analysis

This paper demonstrates that the GTAP-E model with biofuels and Agro Ecological Zones offers a useful framework for analyzing the growing importance of biofuels for global changes in crop production, utilization, commodity prices, factor use, trade, land use change etc.


GTAP (2008) The Indirect Land Use Impacts of U.S. Biofuel Policies: The Importance of Acreage, Yield, and Bilateral Trade Responses

Recent analysis has highlighted agricultural land conversion as a significant debit in the greenhouse gas accounting of ethanol as an alternative fuel. This paper examines the agricultural land use impacts of mandate-driven ethanol demand increases in the United States in a formal economic equilibrium framework which allows evaluation of the importance of yield-price relationships.


Koh & Wilcove (2008) Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity?

Oil palm producers have asserted that forests are not being cleared to grow oil palm. However, this paper suggests that during the period 1990–2005 oil palm expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia did occur at the expense of forests, resulting in significant biodiversity losses. Recommendations to safeguard the biodiversity in oil palmproducing countries are made.


ODI (2008) Review of the indirect effects of biofuels: Economic benefits and food insecurity

This paper discusses the indirect effects of expanding the production of biofuels on the poor in

developing countries. The paper concludes that economically, there is for the most part little to be said in favour of expanding production of biofuels.


Rajagopal and Zilberman (2008) The Use of Environmental Life-Cycle Analysis for Evaluating Biofuels

Life-cycle analysis (LCA), the methodology used to assess the impact of producing biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), may lead to flawed policy implications. Fuel quality standards that are based on LCA are likely to be more costly than when controlling GHG emissions by carbon tax or a global cap-and-trade scheme.


Sexton and Zilberman (2008) BIOFUEL IMPACTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE, THE ENVIRONMENT AND FOOD Report to the Renewable Fuels Agency

This report summarizes the knowledge of biofuels and their wide-ranging impacts presented at the “Sustainable Biofuels” workshop at the University of Illinois, focussing on analyses suggesting biofuels emit more carbon than traditional fossil fuels. The conference revealed that while greenhouse gas benefits (or costs) may limit the appeal of biofuel, the bigger concern is food security implications.




Firbank LG (2007) Assessing the Ecological Impacts of Bioenergy Projects

This paper discusses how  ecological impact assessment methods for bioenergy projects should address not simply changes to species abundance at field level, but include larger scale issues, including changes to landscape diversity, potential impacts to primary and secondary habitats and potential impacts on climate change.


Rajagopal  et al (2007) Challenge of biofuel: filling the tank without emptying the stomach?

Current biofuels pose long-run consequences for the provision of food and environmental amenities. The socio-economic impact of biofuel production will largely depend on how well the process of technology adoption by farmers and processors is understood and managed. The confluence of agricultural policy with environmental and energy policies is expected.







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