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I Say Sustainable, You Say...

January 23, 2009
The Guardian newspaper reported last week that environmental activist and reporter George Monbiot had successfully petitioned Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban an ad containing the tagline, "Biofuels -- A Lower-Priced, Sustainable Answer to OPEC's Oil." The ad was sponsored by the Renewable Fuels Association, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association, and the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

Though Monbiot's petition is not publicly available, the ASA's adjudication response indicates it is similar to his previously expressed opinion that "there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel."

Monbiot, of course, bases this conclusion in part on the paper published by Searchinger et al. in SciencExpress last February. Monbiot, like many others, believes that this paper proves that biofuels production causes shifts in land use that increase greenhouse gas emissions. In point of fact the paper starts from an assumption that shifts in land use are caused by biofuels production. It therefore cannot be taken as proof. The paper states its assumptions clearly enough:

Although these estimates face several uncertainties, the general finding flows from three reliable projections. First, farmers will replace most of the grain diverted from food and feed by ethanol because the demand for overall food and feed -- as opposed to any particular grain -- is inelastic. Second, increases in cropland will provide most replacement grain because they are cost-effective and fast, the yield effects of biofuel demands are both positive and negative, and the world has many convertible acres – up to 170 million hectares in Brazil alone and perhaps 2.8 billion hectares worldwide. Most significantly, the potential emissions per hectare of land conversion greatly exceed the annual greenhouse reductions per hectare of biofuels.

The ASA banned the ad's use of the word "sustainable" in part on a misinterpretation of the conclusions of "The Gallagher Review of the indirect effects of biofuels production." The ASA's adjudication incorrectly states that "the review considered biofuel production would result in net greenhouse emissions and loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction in the period to 2020."

In fact, the Gallagher review states, "the balance of evidence shows a significant risk that current policies will lead to net greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction." The review includes the Searchinger paper in the balance of evidence, but clearly recognizes that it can not be considered proof that biofuels cause indirect land use emissions. The review's conclusions include a clear statement that "Mechanisms do not yet exist to accurately measure, or to avoid, the effects of indirect land-use change from biofuels."