Mar 20, 2013
Insight: how will biofuels change land use?
As global population rises, the increased demand for biofuels as well as meat and meat-based products will require more dedicated cropland, at the possible expense of forests and grasslands. We have developed a system-dynamics approach to such land-use-change (LUC) modelling, called BioLUC. Our analyses hint at potential problems when it comes to producing more meat and processed food that biofuels could exacerbate.
Biofuels are an alternative to petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels, and have been shown to emit lower levels of greenhouse gases. However, compared to petroleum-based fuels, biofuels require more land because of the vast areas needed to grow biomass feedstocks. Cattle and other animals destined for consumption also require more pastureland. However, current LUC models are limited, and better understanding the drivers behind LUC is important for the biofuels industry and policy makers, as well as for future LUC research.
Analysing LUC issues is a challenge, especially for the many interested stakeholders who are not economic-modelling specialists. Existing models are either too complex, require difficult-to-access data or, on the contrary, are just too simplistic. Models such as BioLUC allow us to examine more easily how certain scenarios will unfold within a specific context and are intended to complement existing LUC modelling approaches by incorporating feedback loops between biofuel production and market demands. Our results indicate that meat and meat-based products might be in short supply in the future, something that would further increase their price, and that such a situation might be exacerbated by biofuel use.
The current two-region structure of the BioLUC is a first step in the model's development. Efforts are now underway to expand BioLUC to include 19 regions around the world to perform parallel research using another common LUC modelling system, GTAP. The BioLUC model will be publicly released once it has been expanded to these 19 regions so that other researchers can run their own scenarios.
Our study is part of the ERL Focus on Second Generation Biofuels and Sustainability.
About the author
Ethan Warner is a sustainability analyst at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), focusing on the environmental, economic and social impacts of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Bioenergy is the primary focus area of his research. Daniel Inman is a research scientist at NREL focused on life-cycle assessment of bioenergy systems.