Will ILUC save our livestock?

biofuel

“Biofuels” are combustible liquids made from plants. They can replace petrol and diesel in our engines and are extracted from many different types of plants.

These biologically-based fuels have long been supported by green activists because when you burn them they only emit as much CO2 as the plants absorbed while growing. Their CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere and then returned, while fossil fuels add new CO2, removing nothing. Using biofuels adds no new CO2.

But it was difficult to ignore the fact that world food prices soared in 2008 as a result of US legislation requiring the conversion of US corn into fuel for motor vehicles. That price explosion led to farmers everywhere seeking to expand their cropping areas, often chopping down forests in the process. Here was another of the unforeseen consequences which seem endemic in climate policies.

This led to the new concept known as indirect land-use change (ILUC) being brought into the calculations. If you take a field of grain and sell the crop for biofuel, then somebody, somewhere, will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere. If the shortfall is grown on farmland created by cutting down forests or draining peat land, it can create enough new climate-warming emissions to cancel out any benefits from using the biofuels in the first place.

That’s an indirect land use change (ILUC). Only one piece of land has had its use changed, but that change was caused indirectly by selling the food crop for biofuel. Something should be done to ameliorate the damaging effect on the environment of selling food for fuel. Bear in mind that many of these indirect land use changes occur in other countries, so cross-border remedies are needed.

ILUC has been gaining ground in political circles and has now led EU researchers to the conclusion that making biodiesel from certain crops is actually worse for climate change than conventional (fossil) diesel: www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/15/us-eu-biofuels-idUSTRE76E2PI20110715.

All this raises a new question of particular relevance to New Zealand. Here, our ETS legislation aims to discourage farming of all ruminant animals (dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, etc.) by a levy or tax in 2015. If that penalty succeeds in reducing the output of butter or meat, then somebody, somewhere, will go hungry unless that missing food is grown elsewhere.

In a rational world, ILUC effects should be weighed in the already weak case for taxing enteric methane (the major part of the case against ruminants is based on the methane produced by their digestive systems, not the carbon dioxide they exhale).

A farm animal can only emit as many molecules containing carbon as it absorbs, and most of those are efficiently converted into essential foods — which should earn high ILUC credits. Some of the carbon is returned to the atmosphere in the temporary form of methane, which earns debits. Efficient livestock farming probably has a benign net impact on global emissions.

Maybe this is why no other country has even considered carbon taxes for their farm produce? Or why Australia is about to issue carbon credits to its farmers?

2 Thoughts on “Will ILUC save our livestock?

  1. Alexander K on July 17, 2011 at 2:15 am said:

    One of the facts about ethanol that no Greens will ever tell you; it does nasty stuff to conventional petrol and diesel engines, so much so that many Germans, who have the stuff foisted upon them by diktat, do all manner of devious tricks to avoid using it.
    And please don’t expect political common sense anytime soon anywhere in the world except for the Czech Republic, whose president is a confirmed climate realist.

  2. Clarence on July 21, 2011 at 11:47 am said:

    “Many biofuels are now thought to be worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.

    The European Commission’s own research shows it may lead to an indirect one-off release of around 1,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide — over twice the annual emissions of Germany.”
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/19/us-eu-energy-biofuel-idUSTRE76I3V720110719

    “Oettinger took a first step toward limiting biofuels’ impact on the environment on Tuesday, launching a green standard to prevent companies from clearing forest, peatlands or grassland to grow biofuels for the European market”.

    So clearing grassland is now considered to be ILUC. Does this mean that the EU recognises grassland (as well as forests) as a carbon sink?

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