The ILUC Debate, Four Years Later

By Bob Dinneen | January 11, 2012

Four years ago, the biofuels industry was boorishly introduced to the theory of indirect land use change, or ILUC. Timothy Searchinger’s now infamous article in the February 2008 edition of Science magazine boldly suggested increased corn ethanol production in the United States would lead to massive deforestation and conversion of grassland in nations halfway around the world. These hypothetical land conversions, he proffered, would release large amounts of stored carbon, indirectly making ethanol’s carbon footprint twice as bad as gasoline’s.

We knew it was a crazy theory four years ago. But it seems even crazier today, as the understanding of ethanol’s impact on land use has significantly progressed over the past four years. The scientific community has better data, improved modeling tools, and a better appreciation of the uncertainty and complexity involved in ILUC analysis. But, above all, they have the benefit of some experience and hindsight.

Real world data show that Searchinger was dead wrong in his predictions that ethanol expansion would cause U.S. farmers to plant fewer soybean acres, or that they would “…directly plow up more forest or grassland.” In fact, soybean acreage increased to record levels in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And a recent report from USDA shows U.S. grassland has increased to its highest level since 1964 and forestland is at its highest point since 1978. Meanwhile, total U.S. cropland has dropped to its lowest level since USDA began collecting data in the 1940s. From 2002 to 2007 alone, cropland dropped by 34 million acres, or nearly 8 percent (incidentally, ethanol production tripled during that period).

Empirical data also prove wrong Searchinger’s notion that “higher prices triggered by biofuels will accelerate forest and grassland conversion” in South America. Data from Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology show dramatic reductions in Amazon deforestation over the past five years. In fact, 2010 saw the lowest level of deforestation since the government began collecting the data in 1988.

Academics have recently begun to examine this empirical data to scientifically test the Searchinger hypothesis. One recent study, led by Michigan State University Professor Bruce Dale, used a “bottom-up, data-driven, statistical approach,” to determine that biofuel production in the United States through 2007 “probably has not induced any indirect land use change.” Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory similarly found “…minimal to zero indirect land use change was induced by use of corn for ethanol over the last decade.”  The Oak Ridge findings are based on a rigorous examination of empirical data from the 2001-‘08 time period, a span in which U.S. ethanol production more than quadrupled.

While methods to empirically verify the past occurrence and magnitude of ILUC continue to improve, the economic models used to predict potential future ILUC also are being refined. For instance, recent updates and improvements to Purdue University’s GTAP model resulted in a dramatic reduction of predicted ILUC emissions. In the latest Purdue analysis, the corn ethanol ILUC factor was found to be 14 grams CO2 equivalent per megajoule (g/MJ), compared to the value of 30 g/MJ used by California regulators and the EPA. A 2011 analysis conducted for the European Commission by the International Food Policy Research Institute placed the corn ethanol ILUC factor at 10 g/MJ. Contrasting these latest estimates with Searchinger’s outrageous value of 104 g/MJ shows his worst-case analysis was simply out of touch with reality.

Unfortunately, advancements in the science of ILUC have not been mirrored by improvements in biofuels regulations that penalize ethanol for hypothetical ILUC emissions. California and EPA continue to rely on outdated and inflated estimates of ILUC, to the detriment of our industry. As highlighted by U.C. Berkeley economist David Zilberman at a recent Coordinating Research Council workshop (which RFA co-sponsored), the current regulatory treatment of ILUC is “pretentious,” “shifts attention from real problems,” and “creates uncertainty for investors.” We couldn’t agree more. And that’s why RFA continues to push for improvements in both the science and the policy of ILUC.

Author: Bob Dinneen
President and CEO of the
Renewable Fuels Association
(202) 289-3835