BY JOHN SHEEHAN
Biofuels have suffered through some stormy weather in the past few years. The controversy over biofuels' effect on global land use change (often referred to as indirect land use change, or ILUC) has been one of the most severe of these weather events. As the summer came to an end, much of the heat in the ILUC debate seemed to dissipate.
It is in this period of relative calm (the eye of the storm, if you will) that the Institute on Agricultural Trade Policy and the Institute on the Environment jointly convened a meeting of biofuel producers, environmentalists, farmers, regulators and assorted policy wonks last week to sit down and discuss where we have been and where we want to go in resolving this contentious regulatory problem.
While we may not have "solved" the ILUC question, we did manage to achieve a level of civility that has often been missing as regulators have moved ahead with new laws that translated indirect land use change into a tangible financial and environmental reality. It was great to see organizations like the Renewable Fuels Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council sitting at the same table and discussing areas of common understanding if not complete agreement.
So what did we agree on? First, we all agreed that a sound renewable fuels policy should reward real performance - whether that be measured in terms of energy security or climate change impacts. Secondly, we agreed that the time is right to work together to find regulatory and policy paths that accelerate the nation's progress toward its sustainable biofuels goals. Finally - and in my opinion, most importantly - we all recognized that sustainable biofuels rely on our ability to create a sustainable global agricultural system.
These are very broad areas of agreement. There is much to be done to translate these statements into concrete actions.
Consider the performance criterion. Right now, the carbon intensity of biofuels estimated by regulators at EPA and in California carries with it a significant amount of burden associated with carbon emissions caused by the potential pressure to clear more land as biofuels demand grows. Our ability to clearly articulate this land use impact is poor at best. So we must find new analytic tools that offer a more common-sense approach to such measurements.
Likewise, the biofuels industry needs more arrows in its quiver when it comes to improving its global sustainability. We need more than just technology innovations within the industry.
This brings me to the third point of agreement. The real issue uncovered in the debate about biofuels' indirect land use change is the challenge facing global agriculture. To put it bluntly, the global food system is broken. No amount of technology tinkering within the limited purview of biofuels producers can make up for the technical, social and economic problems that keep us from sustainably meeting current and future needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.
Given the size and scope of the sustainable agriculture challenge, it is no surprise that some of the analysts involved in the research on land use change impacts admitted that capturing such effects may be more relevant to understanding problems at the policy scale and less useful at the level of regulating individual producers of biofuels.
John Sheehan is science director for IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment