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Bye bye, biofuels

Insa Wrede / nkJune 5, 2014

Biofuels have been running out of steam despite the sustained backing from politicians. Next year, a greenhouse gas quota is to ensure that biofuels really do save on CO2 emissions. The biofuel industry fears the worst.

Image: DW/I. Wrede

Germany's numerous rapeseed fields have recently shed their dazzling bright yellow for a more inconspicuous green. Only the odd petal still has a hint of gold. It is now that the coveted black rapeseeds mature - the raw material for biodiesel. For a long time many had high hopes for this plant. After all, some 30 percent of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions are caused by motorized vehicles. Plant-based motor fuel, such as biodiesel, has the potential to reduce this carbon footprint by replacing petroleum.

Biofuels were exempted from the petroleum tax in 2002 in a bid to promote this green trend. “This didn't always have the desired effect though. Vast amounts of rapeseed were cultivated in Germany for the production of biodiesel,” explains Jens Hilgenberg, transport expert with Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). In 2000, around 340,000 tons of biodiesel were consumed in Germany. Seven years later this figure had soared to 3.3 million tons. First deliveries of biodiesel shot up, later ethanol was also blended with fossil fuels. Around the globe farmers upped their production of soy, corn, grain or sugar beet which were subsequently converted into ethanol. This was driven by brisk demand from Europe and other countries such as the U.S. or Brazil who were keen to push biofuels. Global production of biofuels has increased fivefold over the past ten years.

Jens Hilgenberg
Jens Hilgenberg says biofuels are deceptiveImage: Jens Hilgenberg

Greenhouse quote instead of tax exemption

Today the euphoria has subsided. The tax exemption for biofuels was gradually rescinded, instead a certain amount of biofuel was to be blended with regular petrol. Since the beginning of 2011 suppliers of biofuels also have to prove they are producing sustainably, e.g. without any logging in tropical rain forests. And now the blending quota is also set to be abolished early next year.

In future biofuels must have a positive impact on the climate, emitting at least 35 percent less green house gases than fossil fuels. "This means you've got to look at the entire supply chain: from fertilizing the plants to transport and production of biofuels. Then all emissions are added up. You then compare the sum with the fossil reference value - biofuels need a lead of at least 35 percent,” explains Frank Bruehning from the German Biofuels Industry Federation. "Currently biodiesel and bioethanol already outstrip fossil fuels by as much as 50 or 60 percent.”

Threat of slumping deliveries

Despite this the biofuel industry is concerned because their well-being strongly depends on politics. It is also unclear what shape this system of greenhouse gas quotes will take, complains Dominik Baum, the director of the oil mill Thywissen – one of the largest European mills converting rapeseed into biodiesel. "If all that's debated right now is actually implemented, the oil mill federation is anticipating a 50 percent slump in biodiesel demand. That's a vast amount.“

The biofuels industry says a fraction of global acreage is used for biofuelsImage: DW/I. Wrede

Food vs. fuel tank

The switch from climate savior to scapegoat started in 2007. That year several hunger crises broke out in several places around the world. And the culprit was soon found: biofuels. Corn, grain and other plants were being burned in fuel tanks instead of feeding people and were pushing up global prices of food produce, said the critics. These added that the carbon footprint of biofuels also fell short of initial estimates, partly because petroleum-based fertilizers were being used in their agricultural cultivation.

The biofuels industry argues that merely 3.5 percent of worldwide acreage is actually used for biofuels and that prices are hardly influenced by bioenergy crop. Instead starvation was being caused by lacking or bad infrastructure hampering the transportation of food and spoiling the produce before it reached its destination. When assessing the carbon footprint of biofuels one also had to consider that mining or drilling for fossil fuels was growing increasingly difficult and energy-intensive, said Bruening from the German Biofuels Industry Federation. But above all, biofuels had the sustainability label.

Dominik Baum
Dominik Baum is concerned about the new quota systemImage: DW/I. Wrede

Certification is not enough

“The certification means that this fuel must be cultivated on what used to be agricultural acreage,” says Hilgenberg from BUND. Deforestation or draining of marshes is taboo for such bioenergy crop. "But if acreage formerly used for growing food plants is switched over to bioenergy crop, it simply results in food and animal feed switching to non-agricultural areas.” Which means forests and marshland are lost after all. "This indirect land-use change needs to be addressed,” says Hilgenberg, adding "it fails to cut CO2 emissions.”

Instead of the 50 to 60 percent emissions reduction promulgated by the biofuels industry the practice of land-use change rendered the carbon footprint of many biofuels negative, according to Hilgenberg. It would make more sense to produce more energy-efficient cars using less fuel and producing less greenhouse gases and to put more money into public transport, he says, adding that politicians would do better to focus on this than try to iron out past mistakes with biofuels.

Amazon deforestation
Biofuels are still leading to deforestation, albeit indirectlyImage: Reuters