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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Analysis of Biofuels Indirect Land Use Effects Finds the Science Lacking: ‘Too Diffuse and Subject To Too Many Arbitrary Assumptions To Be Useful for Rule-making.’

August 19, 2009

WASHINGTON, Aug.19 /PRNewswire/ — A scholarly analysis of the keystone of indirect land use study – Searchinger et al. – found the science fell far short of acceptable scientific standards. Professor John Mathews and Dr. Hao Tan, researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, undertook an exhaustive analysis of Searchinger et al. which revealed that the framework used was inappropriate in that it started with assumptions as to diversion of grain to ethanol production in the U.S. but then extrapolated these to parts of the world, such as sugarcane growing in Brazil, which are actually (much) more bio-efficient. Mssrs. Mathews and Tan’s analysis concluded that Searchinger et al. failed sound scientific standards on many fronts and that government agencies relying on Searchinger et al. findings for evaluating biofuels would be better served by utilizing other controls.

“Indirect land use change effects are too diffuse and subject to too many arbitrary assumptions to be useful for rule-making,” stated Professor Mathews. “The use of direct and controllable measures such as building statements of origin or biofuels into the contracts that regulate the sale of such commodities would secure better results.”

The issue is where to draw the boundary for life cycle analysis and how to address ILUC effects within the boundary. Non-industry experts are concerned that this is taking regulatory action too far, and the science underpinning such actions, including the ILUC calculations of authors such as Searchinger et al., cannot stand the scientific weight being placed upon them.

The Mathews and Tan analysis states that the real target of the Searchinger et al. paper would appear to be the model of U.S. ethanol production developed by the Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S. Researchers at Argonne have developed a model for biofuels production and consumption in the U.S. that takes full life cycle analysis issues into consideration as well as some attention to land use changes. But the Argonne work does not extend to indirect land use changes, which are considered too uncertain to be modeled – and so it has come in for much criticism from Searchinger et al. as well as others.

“If you wished to put U.S. ethanol production in the worst possible light, assuming the worst possible set of production conditions guaranteed to give the worst possible set of indirect land use effects, then the assumptions would not be far from those actually presented in the Searchinger et al. paper,” commented Dr. Hao Tan. “Frankly, better science upon which to base rule-making is available today.”

The Mathews and Tan analysis identified six areas in which Searchinger et al. fell short:

  • Direct plantings of biofuels crops around the world are ignored, and instead a spike in U.S. corn-based ethanol is considered a trigger;
  • The U.S. spike is met exclusively by growing corn – but other ways of meeting the U.S. spike, all involving fewer GHG emissions, are ignored;
  • The U.S. spike met entirely within the U.S. – without regard to trade (such as half of the spike being met by Brazilian sugarcane and imported into the U.S.);
  • The Searchinger et al. calculations of carbon release are based on trends recorded in the 1990s but are projected forward up to 2016;
  • Improvements in biomass yields around the world are not considered;
  • The U.S. spike leads to indirect effects around the world without regard to regulatory limits (even in the U.S.).

“These six shortcomings, together with the fact that the paper is not replicable, since the models and parameters used are not accessible, places a question mark over the refereeing procedures used for this paper by the journal Science,” added John Mathews. “A paper that seeks to place a procedure in the worst possible light, and refrains from allowing others to check its results, is perhaps better described as ideology than as science.”

The full analysis – Biofuels and indirect land use change effects: the debate continues – can be provided upon request.

About John Mathews

Professor Mathews is professor of strategic management at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. As a specialist in technology and innovation, he is interested in the renewable energy industries and in particular biofuels industries. He has worked internationally with UNCTAD, UNIDO and with the World Bank. He takes up the Foundation ENI Chair in competitive dynamics and global strategy at LUISS Guido Carli university, in Rome, in September.

About Hao Tan

Dr. Tan holds a doctor of business administration from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia (Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation For Excellence In Postgraduate Research). He is currently supervisor research analyst and conducts research on cyclical industrial dynamics which he has presented at numerous international conferences.

    Contact:       Jim Prendergast              312-280-8706 (o)
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SOURCE Professor John Mathews and Dr. Hao Tan


Source: newswire