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New study finds ‘insignificant’ link between US biofuel policy and deforestation in southeast Asia

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A new study carried out by economic modelling experts from Purdue University in the US has found the impacts of US biofuel policy on deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia to be insignificant.

The study, titled ‘US Biofuel Production and Policy Implications for Land Use Changes in Malaysia and Indonesia’, considered concerns from renewable fuel opponents claiming that biofuels are to blame for increased agricultural activity in southeast Asia.

“Our analysis shows that less than one percent of the land cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia can be tied to U.S. biofuel production,” commented Farzad Taheripour, a research associate professor in Purdue agricultural economics. “The amount is not significant.”

Analysis previously published by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Argonne National Laboratory have quantified the benefits of using biodiesel instead of fossil fuel, thanks to its significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Biodiesel and renewable diesel are currently experiencing increased use under federal and state policies in the US, with benefits including reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 86%, compared to traditional petroleum-based fuel.

This latest research from Purdue also confirms there is no shortage of fats and oils used to make biodiesel, nor a shortage of land in the US for producing farm commodities.

Taheripour continued: “In the US, we have lots of unused land available to farmers who can convert it to corn or soybeans. There has been no need to cut forests here. In addition, crop productivity has increased significantly over time, providing more yield on the same amount of land. Because of those, the expected deforestation or conversion of natural land has not had to largely happen to account for US biofuel production.”

In collaboration with the late Wally Tyner, Taheripour developed the GTAP-BIO model for CARB to quantify the market-mediated impacts of the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the US Renewable Fuel Standard. Both policies hold biofuels accountable for increased agricultural production around the world.

“It doesn’t matter that this increased agricultural production is for producing food and not for producing biofuels,” explained Don Scott, director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. “Biofuels are held responsible for the positive economic signals created by these policies. Biodiesel is the leading edge of the bioeconomy, and even renewable industries are held accountable for changes in net carbon emissions. Even with these penalties conservatively applied, biodiesel is still resoundingly better than petroleum from an environmental standpoint.”

The new report was published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels. A portion of the Purdue research was supported by funding from the National Biodiesel Foundation, with additional significant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.