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A petrol pump offering an ethanol blend
E10 is a fuel blend with 10% ethanol. It will be available in Germany as of 2011.Image: picture alliance/dpa

Fuel crops

January 7, 2011

2011 will see a doubling of the amount of ethanol permitted in fuel for cars in Germany. E10 is supposed to address European Union environment goals for cutting transport emissions, but critics say it may backfire.


Ethanol began 2011 with a fizzle rather than a bang in Germany.

With all the hype in late December about Super E10 hitting service stations on January 1, it turns out that there was some confusion about the dates.

The blend of petrol mixed with 10 percent ethanol will be rolled out over the course of the first quarter as service stations make the adjustment of adding an extra pump to their outlets.

The fuel blend is supposed to address the European Union's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector by 10% by 2020.

Ethanol is derived from crops, so it has fewer direct emissions than oil, but not everyone's convinced that it's a step in the right direction.

Compromise of biofuels

Images of sugar cane
Sugar cane in Brazil is a cheap source of biofuels, but some worry about other costs.Image: CC / Rufino Uribe

According to Klaus Picard, head of the Association of the German Petroleum Industry, fossil fuels are still the cheapest option for the consumer. He is very critical of E10 and said it had clear disadvantages.

"First we have to produce a specific base fuel to compensate for the negative impact of ethanol - which is basically the vapor pressure," Picard said, adding that "fuel consumption will go up" because ethanol contains "only two thirds of the energy content of normal fuel."

But Frank Bruehning, press spokesperson from the Association of German Biofuels, said that although drivers would need to fill up their cars more often, the point was overstated. He said E10 would only increase fuel consumption by three percent.

"That is about as much as you can save by driving more carefully, by not kick starting your car and we think that's a contribution that each driver can make for the environment," adding that E10 saves twice as many CO2 emissions as E5, which is already on the market.

Klaus Picard Head of the German Association of the Petroleum Industry
Klaus Picard says consumers will pay more for Super E10 than regular petrol.Image: Cinnamon Nippard

Sustainability criteria

Under the new German legislation, crops used for biofuels must meet sustainability criteria.

However environmental groups question whether such criteria will actually be met in practice - especially in countries like Brazil.

Dietmar Oeliger from the German Nature Conservation Union, or NABU, said that there was no point in designating certain crops as sustainable, and others as not, because producers would just tailor their products for the two markets.

"What happens now is all the so-called sustainable palm oil is used for biofuels because other palm oils are not allowed, so all the rest is going to the food and to the cosmetic industry, so in the end it changes nothing."

Stefan Seum, a scientist from the Institute of Applied Ecology in Berlin, said that making sure that every producer meets strict sustainability requirements is an increasingly difficult task.

"It is a question of control, and we see it also with the issue of dioxins in eggs, that the more globalised, the larger the patterns of sourcing becomes, the more difficult it becomes to control and check," Seum said.

Oeliger and the German Biofuels Industry Association want to see sustainability criteria applied across the board to agricultural products and fossil fuels alike.

When DW asked Germany's Environment Ministry (BMU) about its response to this demand, the BMU stated via email that "We shouldn't be more bureaucratic than necessary. Besides, certification schemes, for instance for organic food or green energy, do exist."

Frank Oeliger from the German Nature Conservation Union, NABU
Frank Oeliger is very critical of the European Union's step to increase quotas of biofuel.Image: Cinnamon Nippard

The EU will be dependent on imports

Biofuels and speculation in food markets have been blamed for sharp rises in food prices in recent years.

Oeliger from NABU said that there's a huge amount of pressure to fulfill increases in biofuel quotas in petrol, which are a result of higher CO2 emission reduction targets.

"Even today up to 50% of the resources for biofuels don't come from Europe, they are imported. But to fulfill the targets of the biofuels directive, our study has shown that we need a capacity of crops that are up to double the size of Belgium," said Oeliger.

Right now in Germany drivers can fill up with E5 and E10 petrol, which contain 5% and 10% ethanol respectively. But Oeliger is concerned that in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, the percentage of ethanol in petrol will be increased to 20% in 2020, at which point he said "we will have a big problem."

Solution or part of the problem?

Sugarcane grown in Brazil is getting a lot of attention because its a much more efficient biofuel crop than maize or wheat grown in Europe. But Oeliger argues that shipping this resource from one side of the world to the other makes no sense.

"The climate balance will be worse if you have to export it to Germany first and then use it in our cars - why not use it in the cars in Brazil?" said Oeliger.

"There's a big need in Brazil itself for sustainable products, so Brazil or South America they themselves should use the ethanol in their country and not export it to Germany."

Stefan Seum from the Institute of Applied Ecology in Berlin said that in Europe, an important component of the biofuels market should be recovering residues, for example, forest residues, wood residues, and agricultural waste materials.

While everyone agrees that more research needs to go into developing more efficient and sustainable fuel sources, Seum is adamant that increasing supply to meet demand isn't the answer.

"We need to look at the most apparent alternative which is traffic reduction. We need to reduce the traffic demand. We need to increase the efficiency of the vehicles."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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