Safeguards: Land

Land is a critical, and potentially limiting factor for the biofuels sector. 2

The area of land currently used for biofuels production is small, but it has increased many times over in recent years. Land is a steadily declining resource globally. As the world population grows and climate change fluctuations increase (e.g. changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, and frequency and magnitude of extreme events) the demand for land will continue to grow. Furthermore, as developing countries develop economically, demand for food will rise and diets are expected to change to a more energy-intensive, animal-based diet. Crop yields are only just keeping pace, with bioenergy just one of many competing demands.

The question that needs to be asked at the outset of any biofuels development is straightforward: what is the best way to use a hectare of land? Unfortunately, there is no generic response, with the answer depending on the conditions prevailing in a given country as well as trade-offs between policy objectives.

Energy input-output differs greatly between different feedstocks and fuels depending on local variables and production practices.

Land is a critical, and potentially limiting factor for the biofuels sector...

The energy gain from biofuels is often expressed as a ratio of biofuel energy output to fossil energy input. However, when considering which biofuels are the most efficient using this metric, allowance must also be made for whether or not co-products such as animal feed and other forms of energy or biomass production are involved. Economically, the value of co-products is also critical; and together with various subsidies and tax incentives associated with ethanol and biodiesel, should also be part of an economic feasibility study of biofuels production. The various uses of biomass (food and materials) are also a key factor; and local traditions and practices need to be taken into account.

Figure 3.1.1  - Differentiation between crops, land-use and end-use effciency

2. The issue of land is not unique to biofuels, but important for all sectors that depend on land resources.

Biodiversity and land use

The importance of ecosystem services should not be overlooked. Reducing biodiversity can reduce ecosystem services, without which development is impossible, including biofuels development. Biodiversity impacts related to biofuels are determined by the type of land being converted, as well as by the type of feedstock used. The efficiency of crops determines the amount of land required.

When assessing the sustainability of biofuels within the context of conservation, comparison questions are important. What else can the land be used for? One option might be conservation, whereas another might be for a different production system. Which production system is the most suitable and efficient for the land being used? Here, the land-use and end- use efficiency correlation is an interesting aspect when seeking to determine the overall energy output of a specific biofuel. This type of data can help determine which type of biofuels will use land most efficiently, reducing pressure on natural ecosystems.

Figure 3.1.2, for example, shows the differences in land requirements by fuel type. The graphic compares different liquid biofuels and alternative drive systems such as an electric vehicle running on electricity produced from wind power.

Figure 3.1.2  - Land required for biofuels by feedstock

Figure 3.1.3  - Land required to drive 100 kilometres

Figure 3.1.4  - Savings in greenhouse gas emissions by fuel type

Land conversion and greenhouse gas emissions
The conversion of high carbon-storage ecosystems, such as tropical forest, savannah and peatland into biofuel plants, can neutralise any GHG emission reductions achieved by replacing fossil fuels with biofuels, and even lead to a net increase in CO2 emissions.

Biofuels, in the use phase, emit the carbon that has been previously absorbed during plant growth. Inputs during cultivation and conversion need to be accounted for. However, the bulk of GHG emissions are related to land-use change. The carbon footprint varies considerably depending on the type of land converted, the type and yield of the feedstock (tonnes per hectare), as Figure 3.1.4 shows. It is therefore key that any GHG analysis takes into account the entire life-cycle of biofuels, including impacts from land-use change. As illustrated, these CO2 emissions range across different types of land and crops (Figure 3.1.5).

Figure 3.1.5  - CO2  emissions from land conversion for energy crops

The ‘carbon debt’ of biofuels on the other hand, is the number of years it can take to offset the carbon emissions generated by converting land for biofuels. It can take decades or centuries for some pathways to bounce back, depending on the type of land that was converted. Particularly challenging is when crops are grown on converted peatland or forest, or areas with underground carbon storage. The figures are disputed, but even lower figures still raise serious concerns that need to be addressed. Analysis applying the concept of ‘ecosystem carbon payback time’ is useful to identify the right options for converting land to biofuel production.

Figure 3.1.6 and 3.1.7  - Ecosystem carbon payback time | Indirect land-use change induced by increased biofuels production

Demand development

Figure 3.1.7 indicates land requirements for biofuels production in response to current biofuels mandates. Depending on projected biofuels demand and available arable land, additional land requirements may exceed a nation’s own resources, and hence have a spill-over effect on other countries and regions.

For example, studies indicate that most European countries will not have sufficient available land resources to produce the feedstocks required to comply with the blending mandates prescribed in the European Renewables Directive themselves. In the case of Germany, it is projected that by 2030 an estimated 10-11 million hectares of agricultural land would be needed to produce the biomass to comply with the biofuels blending mandate. Given current land use, the majority of that land would be outside Germany and most feedstock imported, palm oil from Indonesia and soy from Brazil.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that that growth in biofuels production from 2004 levels to 2030 will require 35 million hectares of land, an area approximately equal to the combined area of France and Spain. Taking 2004 as its baseline Figure 3.1.8 outlines some scenarios for land requirements. Scenario 1 reflects business as usual, scenario 2 plots an alternative policy under which countries adopt carbon commitments, and scenario 3 follows a second-generation biofuels case.

Given these land constraints, the expanding biofuels industry is likely to lead to conversion of land. If no safeguards are applied or they are inadequate, converting land for biofuels may have negative consequences, depending on the type and the amount of land converted. The effects of land-use change may be direct (LUC) or indirect (iLUC).

Figure 3.1.8  - Land requirements for biofuels production

For example, converting pasture, forest, grassland, peatland and wetland for biofuel feedstock production fall under the LUC category, the land cover and use being adapted. But when biofuel- feedstock production replaces other agricultural production, such as food,  feed or fibre, and encroaches on natural land this counts as iLUC. This is also referred to as ‘leakage’ or a ‘domino effect’. Key risks from both direct and indirect land-use changes include higher GHG emissions, lower food security and loss of biodiversity – loss of ecosystem services, resources and processes that are supplied by natural ecosystems.

Ensuring that growing biofuel feedstock does not have an adverse ecological impact in third countries has become a priority concern. The EU and several countries have, for example, introduced various sustainability measures enforced for example through certification schemes. It remains to be seen whether certification can deliver the required monitoring and enforcement of more sustainable practices over a long and complex supply chain.

Food Security

Biofuels have been criticised for causing food insecurity, but many other factors often play a far more significant role than biofuels. But rapid, large- scale growth in biofuel production without sufficient safeguards does pose a risk for food security. This risk needs to be seen in the context of population growth, changing diets, slowing crop-yield improvements, and climate-change impacts on agriculture.

Figure 3.1.9  - Additional people at risk of hunger in 2020

While much has been said about the risks, little has been said about the opportunities which biofuels can bring to food security with appropriate policies and industrial commitments. Biofuels can increase food security when the necessary investment and technology improves overall agricultural productivity and subsequently food availability. While higher food prices may reduce its accessibility, biofuels can improve local economies and hence improve the ability to purchase food.


New infrastructure built to support a developing biofuels sector, can improve access to markets in various industry sectors, and thereby increase overall accessibility. Stability as well as food production and use can be improved through increased access to locally produced biofuels that allow, for instance, for crop drying, cooking and purification of drinking water.


The impacts of biofuels production on food security vary a great deal between communities, regions and countries. At a national level, food and energy exporters have a good chance of generating positive effects, whereas the outcome for those importing food and exporting energy resources, or vice versa, is likely to be fairly neutral. Net importers of both food and energy will require international support. Similarly at the local level, those who benefit from higher prices for crops may be able to balance higher food prices, in contrast to the urban poor who spend an already sizeable share of their income on food.


Figure 3.1.10 outlines possible scenarios for the impact of biofuels on agricultural prices and food security. Although there are several factors that affect agricultural prices, including seasonal variation, market speculation, and extreme weather patterns, some biofuel development scenarios indicate a relationship between agricultural prices and biofuel production. Here, the scenario projects that the largest price increase will be for cereals, with the introduction of first-generation biofuels triggering a price increase ranging from 8 percent to over 35 percent.

food utilisation…

Corn, for example, is a major biofuel feedstock in the US, as well as being a staple food crop in many South American and African countries. It is therefore likely that an increase in the market price for corn will have implications for food security in some regions. When the global market price of corn rose significantly in 2007 it had several implications for poor communities in Mexico for which corn is a staple food.

Figure 3.1.10  - Impacts of  first generation-biofuels on agricultural prices

Land tenure

Poor land tenure security due to lack of appropriate rules and processes, and biofuels production encroaching on land used by pastoralists or for cultural purposes affect local livelihoods and access to land, particularly for poor rural people in developing countries. Figure 3.1.11 indicates various measures which should be taken to mitigate this risk.

Figure 3.1.11  - Potential risks of energy crop expansion on land access

Pragmatic approaches to reduce land use

The negative consequences of iLUC have been hotly debated. Recent debate has focused increasingly on a pragmatic approach to reducing the need for land, thereby reducing risks from direct and indirect changes in land use. These approaches include:

• Using degraded and/or underused land where the risks of increased GHGs and the loss of biodiversity would be substantially lower. However, the process for identifying such land areas needs to be thorough, addressing soil recovery issues and scope for higher levels of agrochemical and water input to increase yields.

• Using waste and residues, which requires a solid definition of waste and an assessment of competing uses, such as using organic residues to rebuild soil fertility.

• Improving yields, particularly in regions where crop and land productivity are considerably lower and could still be improved without incurring risks associated with intensive agriculture.

• Using an agricultural-systems approach, which integrates both biomass production for various end-uses and conservation measures. For example, one approach could be IFES designed to integrate, intensify and thus increase the simultaneous production of food and energy. Conservation agriculture is an approach for ‘resource-saving agricultural crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits together with high and sustained production levels while concurrently conserving the environment’ (IFAD).

• Encouraging efficiency improvements in agricultural production to maximise output per unit of input.

Figure 3.1.12  - Estimated feedstock e  ciency and environmental impacts


< Previous  |   Next >