The objective of using biofuels is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the long term, this can reduce the negative impact of climate change on biodiversity. Several biofuels are grown in existing agricultural areas. This will indirectly lead to loss of natural area on the short term through transfer of current production to other world regions. Assessing the balance between short-term losses and long-term gains for biodiversity shows that it may take decades to centuries before losses are compensated for by long-term gains.
The land use effects of biofuels lead to biodiversity loss
Protecting biodiversity against further losses is one of the goals of climate change mitigation. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to biofuel production could prevent negative climate impacts on biodiversity in the future. However, land use for biofuel production could lead to a loss in natural area and biodiversity in the short term. The sustainability criteria for biofuels are meant to prevent direct losses of areas with high biodiversity, but do not include criteria for biodiversity loss caused by indirect land use change.
With the use of a quantitative method that takes both local losses and indirect global changes into account, this paper shows that it may take centuries before losses in the short term, caused by direct land-use change, will be compensated for by avoided biodiversity loss in the future due to climate change mitigation.
Compensation periods for indirect land-use change can also be determined. When part of the displaced production would be realised through agricultural intensification, the compensation period would only be a part of that for direct land-use change, but can still amount to as much as a century. Taking additional greenhouse gas emissions related to indirect land-use change into account would add extra time to this compensation period.
This novel approach shows that when the ambition to mitigate climate change by using biofuels is high, a positive effect on biodiversity can only be achieved after a very long period. Uncertainties in calculating compensation periods are considerable, but the order of magnitude (centuries) is relevant, as this time scale goes beyond the current policy horizon.
The brief report on ‘Evaluation of indirect effects of biofuels on biodiversity: assessing across spatial and temporal scales’ is a further elaboration of the report ‘Identifying the indirect effects of bio-energy production’, published earlier.
More information about biofuels in the following publications: