Can biofuels be sustainable by 2020?

08-06-2009 | Publication

This joint study of Wageningen University and Research Centre, Ecofys, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency concludes that not all the sustainability criteria as set by the Dutch Cramer Committee for biofuels will be met if the Netherlands aims at a 10% blending by 2020. This analysis is not considering additional policies to mitigate these negative aspects of biofuels or to stimulate biofuels that are meeting the sustainability criteria.

Analysis of sustainability of biofuels

The expectation is that globally more land will be needed for agriculture for food and feed during the coming decade or more. The rate of productivity increase is not likely to keep up with the strongly increasing demand for food and feed. Moreover, in addition to the demand for food as projected by economic models, higher supply rates are needed to adequately feed food insecure people. An additional demand for biofuels before 2020 will increase this pressure on land, with negative impacts on biodiversity. Direct greenhouse gas savings of biofuels are generally positive within the production chain, provided good agronomic management. As the agricultural acreage for food production will increase in the coming decade, production of food and non-food based feedstock for biofuels will put a direct or indirect claim on natural lands. The land clearing for the production of biofuels can cause land use changes, anywhere in the world. Depending on the carbon stocks of the land taken into production, chosen crops and agronomic management, this can lead to substantial greenhouse gas emissions, offsetting the direct greenhouse gains in the production chain. The use of marginal land for biofuels can deliver beneficiary results, but it is uncertain that much feedstock will be produced on these marginal lands by 2020.

Since additional policies are not analysed in this study,performed within the framework of the Netherlands Research Programme on Scientific Assessment and Policy Analysis for Climate Change (WAB), two perspectives have been described how these negative aspects can be handled until 2020. One perspective assumes that even significant changes within the coming decade will not be able to reduce the expected negative implications of biofuels. The other perspective assumes that major efforts should be taken to reduce negative effects.