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Measuring Changes in Land Use

More land will be needed for sugarcane production to accommodate the increasing demand for sugarcane-derived products, and especially for clean and renewable sugarcane ethanol. To manage that growth responsibly, Brazil has taken the lead in establishing model policies to allow the expansion of food and bioenergy production while preserving its natural resources.

While these programs control the direct effects of expanding sugarcane production, a lively debate has emerged recently on the potential indirect effects of biofuels expansion on land use.

Background

Advocates of indirect land use change (ILUC) theory argue that farmers worldwide could respond to higher crop prices and other market signals due to increased demand for biofuels by clearing pristine areas, such as forests or peat lands, and converting them to croplands. For example, according to the ILUC theory, sugarcane expansion in the south of Brazil could indirectly cause deforestation in East Asia. Such land use changes would have the unintended consequence of releasing more carbon emissions, and proponents want to see those increases accounted when calculating the environmental benefits of biofuels.

Currently, there is no consensus in the scientific community about the magnitude of the supposed ILUC phenomenon due to biofuels production. Recent modeling exercises performed by respected environmental agencies yielded widely divergent results.

Estimated ILUC emissions resulting from the cultivation of sugarcane for ethanol in Brazil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Renewable Fuels Standard 
3.8 gr CO2 eq/MJ
European Commission
2011 IFPRI study
13 gr CO2 eq/MJ
California Air Resources Board
Low Carbon Fuels Standard
46 gr CO2 eq/MJ

Results with such gaps and inconsistencies show that science is not robust enough to calculate accurately the level of ILUC that can be attributed to specific biofuels. Some of the most common fallacies of current modeling exercises include:

  • Lack or inaccuracy of data available for some countries.
  • Equilibrium models assume given world economic conditions and cannot take into consideration shifts in public policies and increased productivity, or differentiate between productive pathways such as using degraded pastures for biofuel production.
  • Use of default global carbon stock values that do not match regional realities.
  • Inability to model other interlinked sectors such as cattle raising.

Regardless of such uncertainties, the United States government and the California Air Resources Board have decided to add ILUC emissions to the calculation of direct emissions resulting from the production and use of biofuels. The European Union is also considering doing so.

Our Position

ILUC is a global problem requiring global solutions. No biofuel dedicated policy will be able, by itself, to tackle deforestation patterns that are not directly linked to it. The conclusion of international agreements to protect carbon-rich habitats and the adoption of direct mitigation policies (such as land zoning and strict law enforcement) should be promoted. Such programs offer the best chance to limit carbon dioxide emissions that result from land use changes.

Brazil has made significant progress reducing deforestation rates over the past years. Deforestation in the Amazon is at an all-time low, and Brazil is now mentioned as a leading example on how to fight this problem. Reduced deforestation occurred while sugarcane was expanding due to the booming demand for ethanol, making the correlation between the two a hazardous argument and empirically very difficult to demonstrate.

Graph showing the increase in sugarcane production in Brazil concurrent with the decrease of legal Amazon deforestation.

Please consult our comments sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board and to the European Commission for further technical argumentation.

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