Skip to content

StarTribune – June 13, 2009

We should consider indirect impacts, but the science for doing so is immature.

Last update: June 13, 2009 – 10:49 PM

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson has been lambasted by editorial pages and some environmentalists for threatening to block progress on national climate legislation over a dispute concerning biofuels. But the all-or-nothing approach of both Peterson and his critics does not serve biofuels, agriculture or the fight against global warming.

Peterson introduced legislation in May to entirely undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to include something called indirect land use change, or ILUC, in a revised renewable-fuels standard. ILUC calculations attempt to quantify ethanol-related emissions beyond the direct emissions associated with where and how the corn is grown, the refinery where it’s processed and how the fuel is used. When American farmers sell their corn to ethanol plants, bypassing international food and feed markets, ILUC models estimate that land somewhere else — including rainforest and grasslands — gets plowed under to fill the gap. This releases carbon stored in forests and soils into the air, increasing global warming. ILUC science is in its infancy; it’s easy to imagine how difficult it is to account for other factors that affect land use around the world, including global crop yields, weather conditions, tariffs and taxes, market developments, urbanization, and political upheaval.

Why is the ILUC estimate important? Because it affects the extent to which corn-based ethanol or any agricultural biofuel will meet renewable-fuels standard criteria. Ultimately, it could have a huge impact on the industry.

We, as representatives of Minnesota-based agriculture and environmental organizations, think that Peterson’s concerns have merit, although his proposals go too far. Indirect land use change is real, but ILUC calculations need more research and development before they are used in policy. We need to better understand the links between what happens here in the Corn Belt and what happens in the rainforest, and we must figure out how to quantify indirect effects. Combining a commitment to do this research with a commitment to account for these emissions would be a better approach.

That work requires an international understanding much broader than biofuels or the renewable-fuels standard. We know that our agriculture, forestry, energy and trade policies are global in nature and that they can cause harmful effects beyond our borders. For years, U.S. farm commodities routinely were sold abroad for less than it cost to grow them. This had devastating effects on both developing countries’ food security and the livelihoods of farmers in poor countries. It is safe to say that in this globalized economy, demand for biofuels or bioenergy in industrialized countries will have some effect on what is grown in the developing world.

The problems associated with ILUC — the loss of biodiversity and carbon sinks through deforestation and grassland destruction, as well as the exploitation of small-scale farmers and workers — are pressing and require a comprehensive international solution. An effective response to ILUC will need to involve those most affected on the ground, must support global agriculture and land use practices that are fair, must meet production goals, and must protect and conserve natural resources like soils, water, forests and biodiversity.

The challenge we face is how to develop the bioenergy sector as part of the solution to climate change and energy independence without inadvertently making the climate less stable and the world less secure. To accomplish this, our bioenergy policies must be on track toward a fair accounting of ILUC emissions.

Comments are closed.