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If a Tree Doesn’t Fall in the Forest, Will ENGOs and Regulators Notice?

December 1, 2010


It's been almost three years since former Environmental Defense Fund attorney Timothy Searchinger wrote in Science magazine, "Higher prices triggered by biofuels will accelerate forest and grassland conversion [in Latin America] even if surplus croplands exist elsewhere." Searchinger's Science article was, of course, the salvo that touched off the fierce debate over indirect land use change (ILUC). The paper suggested that the global warming impact of ethanol is twice as bad as gasoline when these hypothetical ILUC emissions are considered. Despite the fact that Searchinger's findings were roundly rejected and refuted by the scientific community, the paper was (and continues to be) an acerbic weapon used by biofuel opponents to perpetuate the myth that U.S. biofuels growth  is somehow leading to accelerated deforestation in the Amazon. Searchinger's hypothesis, already reeling, took another body blow today when Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen to its lowest rate since the government began collecting data in 1988. The announcement by Lula is based on analysis of satellite imagery by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) that shows an estimated 2,490 square miles of forest were cleared in the most recent 12-month period.  That's down 14% from last year and less than half of 2008 levels. INPE data clearly show that Amazon deforestation rates in Brazil have been plunging for the last seven years, and the 2010 rate is less than one-quarter of the rate experienced in 2004 when the deforestation rate reached more than 10,700 square miles. All of this has occurred while U.S. biofuels production has increased dramatically. Annual U.S. ethanol production stood at 3.4 billion when deforestation peaked in 2004. In 2010, the ethanol industry will produce nearly 13 billion gallons. So, Amazon deforestation has fallen 76% since 2004, while U.S. ethanol production has increased 279% in the same period.   Today's announcement by Lula is just the latest exhibit in a recent barrage of evidence that is undermining the argument that ILUC is a significant concern in the context of U.S. biofuels expansion. We've discussed some of these other developments here and here. Indeed, the walls are caving in quickly on the notion that ILUC related to biofuels is a significant source of indirect GHG emissions. One would hope that today's news out of Brazil will be greeted warmly by the environmental community. After all, slowing and eventually stopping deforestation is the goal, right? Unfortunately, I have a feeling the response from NRDC and others may go something like this: "Well, how much lower would deforestation have been without biofuels in the U.S.?" This response, of course, dodges the real issues at hand and resorts back to hypotheticals and computer models. But, as I discussed here, sound empirical evidence and real world data won't ever be good enough for this crowd. They want a theoretical baseline without biofuels to which they can compare the real world (by the way, can anyone show me the dynamic baseline scenario in CARB's original ILUC analysis for the LCFS that was vigorously supported by many environmental NGOs? Oh wait, you mean there isn't one?). It's unfortunate that key regulatory agencies took the Searchinger bait long before others in the scientific community had a chance to explore the ILUC hypothesis, examine new methodologies, and collect better data. For instance, EPA's ILUC analysis for the expanded Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) assumes more than two-thirds (22 of 32 kg CO2e/mmBTU) of the ILUC emissions attributed to U.S. corn ethanol occur in Brazil. In light of today's announcement and other recent data, that just doesn't pass the sniff test. Now, as better data and methods are emerging, regulators are scrambling to refine their analyses and undo the damage done to the ethanol industry. As we did here, we'll continue to encourage the regulators to improve their analyses and integrate the latest data and information.