U.S. biofuels industry braces for fallout from coming IPCC report

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014 - The U.S. biofuels industry is bracing for the latest version of an international climate change report that could, for the first time, take a negative view of the production of food crops for biofuels.

Media reports out of the UK say a leaked “Summary for Policymakers” for a soon-to-be-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that “increasing cultivation of bioenergy crops for energy poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.”

The media accounts are characterizing the IPCC document as contending the use of biofuels that come from the large-scale production of food crops such as corn, sugar or soybeans is resulting in the loss of lands traditionally used for the production of food or requires clearing of forests to make room for crops. The conversion of land is increasing the amount of carbon emissions attributed to agriculture and negates any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) resulting from burning cleaner biofuels for transportation in place of fossil fuels. UK media also say the leaked document airs concerns about stresses to water supplies due to increased biofuel feedstock production and about hikes in food prices brought on by increases in corn costs attributable to greater ethanol production.

Lets Talk Food

However, other sources say the summary is more nuanced than the media accounts would suggest. One source says a reference to biofuels and climate change in the draft summary states: “Increasing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change imply an increasing complexity of interactions, particularly at the intersections among water, energy, land use and biodiversity, but tools to understand and manage these interactions remain limited. For instance, increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity, although contributions of biomass energy to mitigation reduce climate-related risks.

Another IPCC work group released last September, the first part of what is the panel's fifth assessment since it was created in 1988, detailed its appraisal to date of the physical science of climate change, including drought, extreme rainfall and rising ocean levels.

Even with the qualifying acknowledgement of biomass energy offering mitigation to climate change, the U.S. biofuels sector is preparing for some backlash. While most of the trade groups are staying mum about the media accounts, once the final report is released on March 31, all indications are that the industry will vigorously challenge any findings that criticize biofuels on environmental grounds or lay blame on biofuels for higher food costs.

“Given that the final report is still being written, it's a little early to respond to what is little more than speculation” as to what the final report will say, one industry official said this week. “Any claims that are made in regard to increased emissions and higher food prices have all been challenged repeatedly over the past seven years and found to be just plain wrong.”

More than 500 representatives, including scientists and government officials, representing more than 100 countries are convening as a work group in Yokohama, Japan, this week to finalize the second phase of the latest IPCC assessment.

The document being hammered out this week aims to forecast the impact of climate change on humans and ecosystems. A third work group will complete the final phase of the latest assessment, which will deal with efforts to mitigate climate change. The fifth assessment is scheduled to be completed in October when the full IPCC gathers to synthesize the three reports. The last assessment was issued in 2007.

Should the coming report be critical of biofuel-from-food-crop production, renewable energy advocates can be expected to again dispute claims that biofuels increase emissions by citing advances in technology that have made the production of biofuel feedstocks more efficient, with fewer emissions, all while enabling growers to also meet food, feed and fiber needs.

The authors of a recent study commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association, say corn ethanol reduces GHGs by anywhere from 32 to 40 percent when compared with petroleum-based fuels, the range of reductions depending upon the site of where and how crude oil was extracted.

Industry members have also cited recent academic studies indicating the impact of land-use change - the conversion of land to grow food displaced by biofuel feedstock production - has been significantly overstated. The re-evaluation of land-use change has been cited by analysts as a major factor in an EU decision late last year to hold off setting a new, lower limit on the use of food crops to meet the region's biofuels targets.

The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) was among several organizations choosing not to formally respond to the media reports as to what the IPCC assessment may say. But an NBB spokesman said his organization believes that any concerns about biofuels in the report stem from debate over alternative fuel mandates in Europe.

“In North America, biofuels, and particularly biodiesel, have a very different story to tell," said Kaleb Little. He cites the EPA's designation of biodiesel as an “advanced” biofuel, which means it produces at least 50 percent less emissions when burned compared to petroleum diesel. The agency also determined that biodiesel's lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, which include those generated during the production of soybeans as a feedstock for biodiesel, run as much as 86 percent below their petroleum equivalent.

“Biodiesel has the best energy balance and greenhouse gas reduction of any fuel that is currently commercially available,” Little said.

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