ILUC factors could jeopardise how we measure the carbon footprint of a product

As the European Union seeks to address whether biofuels production increases greenhouse gas emissions and whether to tackle the issue by including indirect land use change (ILUC) factors in the environmental assessments, it has ignored the fact that ILUC can neither be observed nor measured and is therefore not a scientifically robust  solution, says Matthias Finkbeiner.
       Dr Matthias Finkbeiner is the Chair of Sustainable Engineering and Vice-Director of Environmental Technology at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin).

The calculated ILUC values for biofuels in different studies vary immensely, depending on what assumptions are made. In order to have scientific robustness in this field, academics should be able to tackle all indirect effects or none.

We all agree that climate change is of high concern and there is growing demand for carbon footprint information. In order to tackle it the key question that rises in all these debates is “How can we measure the carbon footprint of a product?”

If policy makers decide to introduce speculative ILUC factors into environmental impact assessment, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Carbon Footprint (see note below) would fail and their credibility, robustness, integrity and reliability will be equally damaged. More straightforward: the accounting of ILUC factors not based on scientific evidence would jeopardise the whole Life Cycle Assessment system.

The difference between LCA and ILUC emissions is that the science behind ILUC is still in its infancy while LCA is an internationally standardized method for the evaluation of the environmental burdens and resources consumed along the life cycle of products, accepted internationally, from the extraction of raw materials, the manufacture of goods, their use by final consumers or for the provision of a service, recycling, energy recovery and ultimate disposal.

This distinction is especially critical for policymakers to note that the European Parliament’s Environment Committee is voting on its ILUC report on the 10thof July. The key point of the Environment Committee report, written by Rapporteur MEP Corinne Lepage (ALDE, France), is to make reporting of ILUC emissions mandatory for every biofuel placed on the EU market, and demands that emissions generated by indirect land-use change should be part of the sustainability criteria thus agreeing with the science behind the ILUC proposal as a sufficiently founded basis for the introduction of ILUC factors.

ILUC sustainability criteria are a challenge and they cannot be addressed without concerted action by all relevant players, including private sector, governments and academia. There is still a pressing and urgent need to discuss ILUC criteria and its scientific robustness.

The ILUC calculations are not evidence-based, and are not suitable as a basis for European legislation, which should be based on established, proven methods. Currently, any ILUC factors are more representative for the calculation method chosen than the products assessed.

In the absence of internationally acknowledged and robust ILUC method, more focus and resources should be directed towards proactive mitigation of ILUC effects, rather than reactive introduction of sham ILUC factors.

Professor Dr. Matthias Finkbeiner is the Chair of Sustainable Engineering and Vice-Director of Environmental Technology at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin).

Note: Carbon footprint (CF) – also named Carbon profile – is the overall amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (e.g. methane, laughing gas, etc.) associated with a product along its supply-chain and sometimes including from use and end-of-life recovery and disposal.