ILUC and the Food Versus Fuel Paradox
With biofuels going global, lingering debates threaten to impede growth. A look at ILUC, food versus fuel, and the challenge of managing public perception.
As Peak Oil knocks at the door, we are left to wonder how long we have. As a finite resource, oil’s days are certainly numbered, but it is difficult to tell when that new reality will arrive.
Some argue, based on Hubbert’s analysis, that it is already here, and recent run-ups in the price of oil certainly support the claim. An alarming number of experts contend that if we have not yet reached the peak, it is fast approaching. Biofuels represent a viable solution today to dampen the blow, but at what cost?
Mudslinging and the Rise of ILUC
Indirect land use change (ILUC) is based on the premise that there may be unintended consequence associated with the expansion of croplands for ethanol or biodiesel production in response to increased global demand for biofuels, including the destruction of “virgin” lands and a corresponding release of carbon emissions.
The ILUC backlash is inimical to the global expansion of biofuels as a traded commodity, as was seen in the EU’s most recent debate during a rework of its Renewable Energy Directive.
When Timothy Searchinger first released a report examining the impact of ILUC in 2008, it set off a wildfire of criticism around the methodologies for measuring such an empirically elusive phenomenon. The debate has taken on increasing complexity in the ensuing years as researchers around the world have weighed in.
Most recently, Dr. Seungdo Kim and Dr. Bruce E. Dale of Michigan State University published a study in the July 2011 issue of Biomass and Bioenergy Journal that concludes that ILUC linked to biofuels production, domestically and internationally, is negligible or nonexistent. The team looked at historical data to investigate ILUC effects and found no statistical evidence of the changes predicted by ILUC theory in any of the 18 world regions.
So who’s right? It is difficult to say. Not to duck the question, but it may miss the point entirely. And this is not necessarily a bad thing even if the Searchingers of the world indeed are correct.
What we learn is that the moral and ethical implications of biofuels matter — not necessarily because measurable changes in land use patterns may be intrinsically linked to ethanol and biodiesel production (though if they are we should certainly take heed) — but because in order to expand, the biofuels industry must negotiate the pitfalls of public perception.
The fact that we live in a world of resource constraints makes the exercise particularly difficult. Managing public perception, and more importantly, expectations, is key to expanding biofuels production worldwide to offset a much more worrisome public policy issue, petroleum dependence.
The Paradox of Food Versus Fuel
Like ILUC, the food versus fuel debate exploded on the scene in 2008 as food prices around the world skyrocketed. In truth, the causes are complex and attributed to a web of factors. To attribute increases in food prices to the use of biofuels alone is both misleading and irresponsible. But again, public perception matters.
Biofuels must operate within physical limits. Growing demand for just about everything — food, water, land, etc. — means more pressure on a finite set of resources.
As Dr. Matthew Aylott points out in a great article examining whether the food versus fuel legacy is holding back biofuel progress in the EU:
As pressure grows to reduce carbon emissions, oil supplies run low, and the population soars towards a predicted 10 billion by 2080, land will become scarcer and crops more expensive.
To be sure, biofuels will add to the pain. They will constrain water sources, they will displace crops, and famines like what we are currently seeing in Somalia will persist in one form or another. While there is arguably enough available land to absorb the expansion of dedicated energy crops, reality is never that easy.
Although biofuels may not be directly related in all cases, they will be implicated and, in some cases certainly, will become the scapegoat for future resource conflicts. Biomass may be local, but human ethics are (mostly) universal.
The Dawn of Biofuels and Geopolitics in the Post Oil Age
As we transition into the “Post Oil Age,” the ILUC and food versus fuel debates continue to constrain progress towards more sustainable fuels made from biomass. Although not necessarily a bad thing in all cases, the debate obscures the reality that all biofuels are not created equal. More importantly, the range of potential feedstocks each come with their own unique set of benefits and drawbacks. Planning with these attributes in mind will be key to growing biofuels in a post oil world.
Jatropha, for instance, can be grown on arid land and offer new sources of income for rural communities. Algae can be used to remediate wastewater. Breakthroughs in cellulosic biofuels are unlocking the potential of biomass resources worldwide. But they also have their own unique drawbacks, and accordingly, each feedstock should not be viewed as a one-size fits all solution for every corner of the globe (e.g. algae).
In the same way, biofuels are not a silver bullet solution to petroleum dependence, climate change, and economic development, but they can be a key component of strategies to address all three. While sustainability standards will help gird biofuels for the challenge, the industry must not discredit ILUC and food versus fuel, but rather do more to manage the public’s expectations if it is to realize its full potential.