What the science says

A number of major reports have examined the issue of indirect land use change (ILUC) for biofuels. Here is what they have found.

Drawing from a large amount of scientific evidence, this briefing shows that taking into account ILUC in policy is appropriate and necessary. 


In November 2016, the European Commission published a proposal for a recast of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to set  new rules for the use of biofuels in Europe for the period 2021-2030. These new rules will replace the 2009 RED and the 2015 ‘ ILUC directive’, both running until 2020.

The European Council, the European Parliament and the Commission embarked in negotiations and finally agreed on the new biofuels rules in June 2018. While taking a step in the right direction by freezing the amount of crop biofuels in the EU after 2020, the EU still doesn’t properly take into account their Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) emissions and impacts. This means that almost all types of biofuels can be used in the EU, no matter what their ILUC impacts are. In the case of high-ILUC biofuels, these will be fully phased-out in the law, but only in 2030.

What is ILUC?

The production of biofuels can indirectly cause additional deforestation and land conversion. When existing agricultural land is turned over to biofuel production, agriculture has to expand elsewhere to meet the existing (and ever-growing) demand for crops for food and feed. This expansion happens at the expense of forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands, and other carbon-rich ecosystems. This results in substantial increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the soil and removed vegetation (e.g. deforestation). An accurate measure of the sustainability of biofuels must account for ILUC.

Since the very first RED, many scientific reports were already indicating that ILUC, due to increased biofuel production, has a high potential to outweigh any GHG benefits from the use of biofuels. Since the laws were passed, scientific evidence has accumulated further.

This is a compilation of the findings of a number of major reports on biofuels that examine the issue of ILUC and GHG emissions calculations for biofuels.  Drawing from a large amount of scientific evidence, it shows that accounting for ILUC in the emissions calculations of biofuels is appropriate.

Already back in 2011, over 200 scientists wrote to the European Commission calling for policies to take account of indirect land use change:

“Without addressing land use change, the European Union’s target for renewable energy in transport may fail to deliver genuine carbon savings in the real world. It could end up as merely an exercise on paper that promotes widespread deforestation and higher food prices.”


There is clearly an overwhelming body of scientific evidence revealing the appropriateness and the urgency of addressing ILUC emissions. The new RED for 2020-2030 is a step in the right direction for addressing ILUC emissions, but a lot will depend on member states’ implementation. The new law provides the opportunity for member states to end the support to crop-based biofuels. We call on EU governments to ensure an ambitious and robust implementation in the years to come.

At the same time, if member states decide to continue the support to crop biofuels, their share will continue to be limited and there is now a commitment to phase out the support to the highest emitting biofuels such as palm oil.