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Understanding Land Use Change – Are New Tools Needed?
by Jessie Stolark (Energy and Environmental Study Institute) Are we using the right tools to understand land use change, particularly at the local level, and how can understanding of land use change be improved?
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has been around for 10 years, yet the policy continues to be dogged by concerns over its impact to U.S. and foreign land use. In the United States, the USDA tracks aggregate land use conversion. However, the impact of growing biofuels feedstocks (primarily corn and soy) on land use change at a local level has been difficult to ascertain. Understanding of the issue is primarily hampered by the use of databases and tools that were not developed specifically for this task. The result is policy makers and stakeholders have insufficient and perhaps inaccurate information regarding the impacts of the statute on land conversions.
There has been great concern by some that the RFS has driven the conversion of ecologically sensitive lands (wetlands, forest, and grasslands) that are important for wildlife and carbon storage to cropland, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region, but also in regions of the Southern Great Plains. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to assess the veracity of these claims, not only due to other policy and economic drivers of LUC, but also because of land use datasets that simply aren’t designed to analyze these types of local conversions.
However, to what degree are conversions happening, what’s driving conversions in addition to ethanol (such as available conservation acres), and how accurate are these measurements remains an open debate.
Of course, the ethanol industry shot back with its own arguments, including the fact that total cropland in counties with ethanol plants was lower in 2012 than previous years. Geoff Cooper, of the Renewable Fuels Association, contends that ethanol facilities aren’t driving grassland conversions, but farmers are instead converting fallow cropland to crop production.
However, without a broadly accepted way to measure LUC, the debate will continue to be ruled by conflicting information. READ MORE