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Indirect Land Use Change as a Criterion to Determine Sustainable Biofuel Crop Production

December 4, 2020

Yew Foong-Kheong*, Anna Norliza, Z.P., Ruslan Abdullah, Kalyana Sundram

* Corresponding author: Malaysian Palm Oil Council, Level 7, Menara Axis, No.2, Jalan 51A/223. 46100 Petaling Jaya, Selangor D.E., Malaysia

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Land is an important resource in agriculture. The cultivation of crops for food, animal feed and biofuel needs land. Similarly, the production of livestock also requires land for the animals to graze. The use of land for agriculture results in land use change (LUC) which can be distinguished as Direct Land Use Change (DLUC) and Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).

In agriculture, DLUC happens when new or uncultivated land is used for farming or animal production. However,  when existing cropland production is diverted for other kinds of use, forcing the shortage of food, feed and material to be produced on new cropland elsewhere, this land expansion is called ILUC ( Malins, 2011).

As an example, rapeseed is a vegetable oil crop that is grown in EU. It is used as a vegetable oil for food  and the fibre is used as an animal feed. As human population increases, there is a need to clear more new land to produce more rapeseed  and this results in DLUC. When present rapeseed oil production is diverted for use as a biofuel, the shortage of rapeseed for food forces it and its substitutes e.g. soya and oil palm to be grown on new cropland elsewhere that leads to ILUC.

DLUC can be observed and measured directly while ILUC cannot be measured or observed directly. As such, agro-economic models are used to determine ILUC effects. Both kinds of LUC result in either a gain or a loss of carbon stock which have effects on climate change and must be accounted for, particularly to determine the suitability of biofuel feedstocks for use in Renewable Energy Programmes whereby biofuels are used to replace fossil fuel as one of the solutions to abate climate change. 

GHG emissions from DLUC can be measured and accounted by using Life Cycle Assessment  methodology which is a standard protocol to determine sustainability of  biofuel feedstocks. Recently, EU has included ILUC as an additional criterion to determine biofuel feedstock sustainability (European Commission, 2019).  The suitability of ILUC  for the purpose is evaluated in this paper.


The ILUC emissions for palm oil and rapeseed biofuel feedstocks are compared. The purpose is to test the ability of using ILUC to distinguish between high and low risk ILUC biofuel feedstocks. The ILUC emissions of these two feedstocks are obtained based on a literature search. For the purpose of this present study, a further selection of the available data by limiting them to only  original research, is carried out. 


ILUC emissions are extremely variable not only between but also within feedstocks  (Table 1). Rapeseed feedstock ILUC emissions range from -115to 241gCO2/MJ while that for palm oil varies from 9 to  >400 gCO2/MJ.  When the two feedstocks are compared, palm oil has a higher ILUC emission than rapeseed feedstock, with emissions of 83 and 65gCO2/MJ respectively.

Table 1: ILUC emissions of rapeseed and palm oil biofuel feedstocks

Parameter Rapeseed Palm oil
Highest ILUC emission (gCO2/MJ) 241 >400
Lowest ILUC  emission (gCO2/MJ) -115 9
Median ILUC  emission (gCO2/MJ) 65 83

 Note: There are 13  studies for rapeseed and 8 for palm oil (Source: Woltjer et al., 2017)

Next, ILUC comparisons for the feedstocks are looked into more critically. To do this, ILUC results are only taken from studies that compared them together in the same study. The results in Table 2 show that the variability of ILUC emissions within the same feedstock  is still very large, with emissions ranging from -10  to 241 gCO2/MJ for rapeseed and 20 to >400 gCO2/MJ for palm oil feedstock. However, when these results are averaged out, ILUC emission for palm oil feedstock is only slightly higher  than rapeseed with values of 89.6 and 87.6 gCO2/MJ respectively.

Table 2: ILUC emissions of rapeseed and palm oil biofuel feedstocks

No ILUC emissions (gCO2/MJ)
Rapeseed Palm oil Source
Range Average Range Average
1 51 to 54 52 40 to 50 47 Al Riffai et al.,18
2 NA 222 NA 47 Edwards et al.,8
3 28-81 55 47 to 60 54 Laborde19
4 NA 31 NA 9 Acquaye et al., 20
5 53-68 57 54 to 64 57 Laborde et al.,14
6 170 to 241 204 11 to 249 201 Overmars et al., 13
7 -10  to 130 65 20  to >400 231 Valin et al., 7
8 NA 15 NA 71 CARB 21
Range/Mean -10  to 241 87.6  20 to >400 89.6  

Note: NA= no results available

The European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC) engaged  an alternative method  by using historical data to calculate ILUC emissions when it was noted  that estimations of ILUC emissions by using agro-economic models were often complex and sophisticated (Overmas et al., 2011). The ILUC emissions for these two biofuel feedstocks based on this method are shown in Table 3. EU rapeseed feedstock has a slightly lower ILUC emission than Malaysian palm oil feedstock for both models using the RED method; being 191 versus 199 gCO2/MJ respectively for the IMAGE model and 170 versus 171 gCO2/MJ respectively for the CSAM model. On the other hand, EU rapeseed feedstock has higher ILUC emissions for both models when the economic value method is used; being 241 versus 205 gCO2/MJ respectively when the IMAGE model is used and 215 versus 176 gCO2/MJ respectively  for the CSAM model. On the overall, Malaysian palm oil feedstock has a lower  ILUC emission of 188 gCO2/MJ than EU rapeseed feedstock with an emission of 204 gCO2/MJ when the emissions for the different methods are averaged.  

Figure 3: Best-estimate ILUC emissions of Malaysian palm oil and EU rapeseed biofuel feedstocks

Feedstock ILUC emissions (gCO2/MJ)
IMAGE CSAM Mean emission
by RED method by ‘economic value’  method by RED method by ‘economic value’  method
EU rapeseed 191 241 170 215 204
Malaysian palm oil 199 205 171 176 188

Source: Overmas et al., 2011. Abbreviations used:-Integrated Model to Assess the Global Environment (IMAGE), Cropland Spatial Allocation Model (CSAM), Renewable Energy Directive (RED)


This study shows that estimated ILUC emissions are so variable not only between rapeseed and palm oil biofuel feedstocks but also within the same feedstocks. It is, thus, difficult to determine the threshold value to separate high and low risk ILUC feedstocks.  Secondly, the results show that a clear and consistent pattern of which feedstock has a higher ILUC emission cannot be found. For example, palm oil has a higher ILUC emission than rapeseed biofuel feedstock from the results in Table 1 but the results in Table 3  show just the opposite.  The results in Table 2 show that rapeseed and palm oil have similar ILUC emissions. It is, thus, concluded that ILUC, determined by agro-economic models,  is not a suitable criterion to assess biofuel feedstock sustainability.


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