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Biofuel certification

March 5, 2010

Germany is the first EU member state to approve a certification scheme for sustainable biomass production. But critics say the regulations leave some problems unresolved.

jatropha seeds
The seeds of the jatropha plant can be processed into biofuelImage: DW/ Martin Vogl

Germany's first certification system for biofuels has been launched in a bid to ensure that they don't end up doing the kind of harm to the environment that they are supposed to prevent.

In future, suppliers of oils derived from rapeseed, palm or soya can have their product certified by a new Cologne-based institution: the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC).

From July 2010, German companies must prove the sustainability of their biofuels in order to qualify for tax deductions, or to have their products counted towards nationally mandated renewable energy targets.

"It has a clear impact on the profitability of these companies," Jan Henke from the ISCC told Deutsche Welle.

ISCC is the first scheme to be approved by the German Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE). The system follows a two-year pilot phase, which brought together partners from Europe, Asia and South America.

It cooperates with other certification authorities, such as the Technical Inspection Agency, which audits the biofuel industry from the beginning to the end of its supply chain.

The ISCC will soon be facing competition, too.

Leading agrarian and biofuel associations founded a separate certification system last week called REDcert.

One of REDcert's founders, an umbrella group of agricultural cooperatives called the German Raiffeisen Association (DRV), says it will apply for official approval in the coming weeks, and expects to begin operations at the end of April.

The two certification bodies will play a vital role in ensuring that biofuels make a credible contribution to the EU's goal of deriving a fifth of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Sustaining natural habitats

deforestation in Sumatra
This marsh in Sumatra was stripped to make room for palm oil plantationsImage: cc/ H Dragon

German environmental associations, such as WWF and NABU, have welcomed the systems, but have also expressed concerns.

"We fear that the minimum criteria stipulated by the EU are quite weak," NABU's Dietmar Oeliger said.

The EU's renewable energy directive (RED) requires biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent, compared to fossil fuels.

"It's not that difficult to adhere to the 35-percent reduction guideline," Oeliger said, and it's not his only worry.

The certification procedure applies both to those biofuels procured within the EU as well as imported biomass from outside the bloc.

The EU requirements aim to ensure that biomass, for example palm oil, is not produced at the expense of valuable natural habitats in producer countries. These include rainforests, biodiversity hotspots or wetlands.

In countries such as Paraguay, Indonesia and Malaysia, large areas of tropical rainforest have been cut down to grow palm oil.

Grit Ludwig, a research fellow at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, said the EU directive still does too little to safeguard natural habitats.

"It does not offer any guidelines when the land used for biomass production was previously used in another manner," Ludwig said in a UFZ article published earlier this week.

Biomass products could thus displace food cultivation to ecologically valuable areas – resulting in net damage to the environment, and an increase in the emissions that biofuels are supposed to eliminate.

Effective controls

A woman rides a bike through a rapeseed field
Rapeseed is a significant source of biomass in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Since Germany cannot produce enough biomass on its own, imports are necessary - mainly from developing nations. This is a particular challenge since all aspects of the chain need approval for the certification.

According to Henke from the ISCC, the agencies that work with the scheme have people on-the-scene who carry out the necessary controls, but Ludwig says this isn't always the case.

"Private organizations are commissioned to certify and they are generally not on-site. Their controls can therefore only take place sporadically," Ludwig said. "It's questionable, for example, whether an evaluator can visit a widespread farm in a developing country for just a few days and review whether it is adhering to all the criteria."

In practice, this will be a key factor to measure the various schemes' effectiveness.

"Every standard is only as good as its controls," NABU's Oeliger said.

A further bone of contention among critics is the issue of social standards.

"These are weak in the EU directive," Oeliger said.

Henke said the ISCC has implemented higher standards than required, including norms for working hours, anti-discriminatory practices and child labor.

"It doesn't require a large amount of additional efforts to include these in our work," Henke said.

REDcert, on the other hand, is restricting it self to the letter of the law, and is tight lipped about embracing social standards.

"We will be focusing on implementing the legal specifications," said Guido Seedler from the DRV.

For companies and certification authorities, time is running out. Certification has to take place by July 1, 2010. According to Seedler some 2,000 to 2,500 companies need to be processed.

Henke said it would be "challenging" to complete certification by July, but that many companies were prepared.

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Nathan Witkop