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Biofuel's Ups and Downs

Vera Möller-Holtkamp (sms)January 28, 2007

Biofuel has been heralded as the answer to air pollution and energy dependency while creating jobs, but German environmental groups say it's not necessarily the panacea some portray it as.

Rapeseed can be a useful plant, if it's not planted in environmentally sensitive areasImage: AP

The goal of creating fuel from corn and rapeseed has long been to reduce oil and gas imports while lowering costs for energy companies and doing something good for the environment at the same time. But some groups in Germany say not all biofuels are created equal.

"There should not be a green light for all biofuels," said Imke Lübbeke, an energy expert for the German World Wildlife Fund, adding that some renewable sources of energy are not necessarily good for the environment.

But while the WWF and other environmental organizations said that it is irresponsible to cut down large swaths of carbon dioxide absorbing rainforest to make way for renewable crops that could potentially be the power sources of the future, there is still room for Europe expand its fields of biofuel producing plants.

Europe still has space for more fields of renewable energy producing plantsImage: PA/dpa

"A million hectares of farmland, that's 10 percent of cultivable land in Germany, are fallow and this standstill is even supported by the government," said Jürgen Zeddies, an agricultural economist at the University of Hohenheim, adding that some of these fields could be used to grown renewable material for fuels.

Danger for local flora

Other environmental protection groups, however, warn that using all the fields for fuel material could lead to the extinction of a number of plant types in Germany as soil properties change due to the new crops.

That will make it crucial to find environmentally friendly ways of creating biofuel, Lübbeke said.

"We have to be careful that biofuel is made in an environmentally friendly way," she said. "It doesn't make any sense to sacrifice important protected areas or soil and water protection zones for rapeseed and sugar beets for biofuels."

Biomass is a solution that Lübbeke and Zeddies agreed could be an intelligent way to create power and heat in an environmentally friendly way, especially as most of these types of energy comes from coal power plants.

Replacing the worst polluters

Biodiesel is already mixed into nearly all Germany's diesel pumpsImage: AP

"The question is always what types of energy you are using bioenergy to replace," said Nils Rettenmaier of Heidelberg's Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "And it makes sense to replace the ones that are the most carbon heavy."

Rettenmaier added that he feels biofuels are often not used as intelligently as they could be and called on the auto industry not to just make engines that use biofuels but to make more efficient engines in general.

"The automobile industry uses biofuels for its lobbying work," he said. "It tries to turn attention from its task of building efficient vehicles."

There may be a ray of light coming for Rettenmaier and other environmental protection groups from the European Union next week. That's when Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas plans to announce new guidelines limiting CO2 exhaust in new cars by 25 percent by 2012.