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Monday, 05 May, 2014

Palm Oil Biofuel's Beneficial ILUC Impact

The use of biofuels is being promoted because they are deemed to be more environment-friendly than fossil fuels. However, some scientists do not support this especially when crops that are presently used for food are channeled for use as biofuels. Rapeseed is an example of such a biofuel crop.

Land use is an important consideration in Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) evaluation. The rationale behind this ILUC concept is that, when a food crop, such as rapeseed, is diverted for use as biofuel, a vacuum or crop deficit is created. This vacuum is filled when other areas (land) are used  to plant rapeseed to make up for this crop deficit. Land use in these new areas then generates new sources of green-house gas emissions (GHG) which must be borne and accounted for in the life cycle assessment of rapeseed as a biofuel crop.

Oil palm is a perennial crop and yields oil throughout the year.  It is grown in the tropics.  This oil, produced on a continuous basis, can be used to make biofuel. On the other hand, rapeseed production is seasonal. Besides, oil palm yields are bountiful. It produces  6 times more oil than rapeseed on an equivalent area basis; average yield of oil palm and rapeseed being 3.68 and 0.58 tonnes of oil/ha/year respectively (1). The implication is that less land is needed to obtain the same amount of oil to make biofuel if palm oil is chosen. The ILUC effect is, thus, estimated to be lower with palm oil biofuel when compared with rapeseed.

It was estimated that more than 60% of EU’s rapeseed production was used to produce biofuel(2). 9.483 million tonnes of rapeseed oil were produced in EU-27 in 2012 (3). As such, 5.69 million tonnes of rapeseed oil were channeled from food to biofuel production in 2012. This yield was obtained from 9.81 million hectares of land as seen in Table 1 .

Table 1: Comparison of land use and yield of oil palm and rapeseed for biofuel production 

Biofuel crop




 Quantity of rapeseed oil used  to produce biofuel  in EU in 2012

5.690 million tonnes

Land needed for production (a)

9.81 million hectares

Oil palm

Quantity of palm oil needed to substitute rapeseed biofuel

5.690 million tonnes

Land needed for production (b)

1.55 million hectares


Land area saved by substituting palm oil for rapeseed biofuel  (a-b)

8.26 million hectares

If palm oil was to substitute the whole of the rapeseed oil for biofuel, this would divert 5.69 million tonnes of rapeseed oil back  for use as food. However, this would also siphon away 5.69 million tonnes of palm oil away from the food market. The ILUC effect would be that  a new area of 1.55 million hectares would be needed to plant oil palm to replace this loss (Table 1).

What are the consequences if EU had decided to keep all the rapeseed oil produced in 2012 for food?  EU would then have to find a new land area of 9.81 million ha (Table 1). However, if EU decided to use palm oil biofuel,  then a very much smaller area of new land, amounting to only 1.55 million hectares, would be needed. The net result would be a savings of 8.26 million hectares of new land which could be used for other purposes, including to produce more food.

It is, thus seen, that the choice of a biofuel,  produced from a crop with high land productivity,  instead of another biofuel  that is produced from a crop with a lower land productivity, can save valuable land resource. This factor of land savings must also be taken into the calculation of ILUC since arable land is getting scarcer with time.

1) Yew F.K., Sundram, K., Yusof Basiron (2010). Mitigating climate change through oil palm cultivation, Int. J. Global Warming, 2, 2,118-127.
2) Biofuels: Euro MPs vote to cap use for transport.
3) Oil World  Annual 2013 (2013). Table of Contents. ISTA Mielke GmbH.

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