Another analysis NOT disproving ILUC

The latest paper on indirect land-use change is getting a lot of press, but unfortunately does not, as some have claimed, prove that the ILUC doesn't exist or isn't happening. To help me explain why, join me for a little parable:

Imagine you're in an airplane heading towards a mountain. As the pilot pulls back on the stick, ice slowly accumulates on the wings. The ice is making the plane heavier and heavier. The pilot pulls more and more. You worry, and wonder is that ice going to make us crash into the mountain? Suddenly an academic step up and says, "don't worry about the ice! I've run a regression and determined that we're not going down."

"But will the ice make us crash into the mountain?" you ask.

"I have proved that as far as my model can detect we're not going down," says the professor.

And then ethanol indusrty lobbysts pop out of an overhead compartment and sing in unison, "this proves there's not such thing as ice or indirect land use change."

Or something like that.

I'm sorry to be flip about this, but this is about the state of affairs with regards to the recent paper from Dr. Seungdo Kim and my friend, Dr. Bruce Dale. I have a lot of respect for both of these guys. They've done really important work on producing animal feed from cellulosic crops such as switchgrass and on distributed production systems. Both of these ideas would help reduce the emissions from indirect land-use change induced by policies that drive the conversion of food and feed and the land that produces them into fuels.

That said, just like the academic in my little parable above, Kim and Dale have asked and answered the wrong question. You can't detect ILUC by just looking at where we are today or by comparing where we are to an historical baseline. Just as in my story, if you want to know what effect the ice will have, you would have to compare against the flight path without ice, for ILUC, you have to compare where we are to where we would be without biofuels.

This is the same mistake that ORNL researchers made a year ago. I wrote a lot about RFA's misguided trumpeting of that analysis and how you could just as easily use current data to make the case that the US is falling behind on feeding the world. And I certainly sympathize with the frustration evident is Kim and Dale's description of the "assumption-heavy global economic modeling approaches" that are necessary to calculate ILUC. But if you want to quantify ILUC, you got to start by asking the right question.

(P.S. I recognize that the parable is imperfect--I would care if we're going to crash not what specific role the ice is playing. Whereas with ILUC we're trying to figure out what specific role biofuels play. But you get the idea.)