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Is China swamping Europe with fake biofuels?

Insa Wrede
August 23, 2023

European biofuel producers have come under significant price pressure as Chinese companies inundate the second-generation biofuel market with their cheaper products.

A biofuel tank truck being loaded at German company Verbio's plant
As China undercuts market prices with its dubious advanced biofuels, European producers are strugglingImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

Biofuels are an important cornerstone of Europe's ambitious plan to reduce harmful carbon emissions in the transportation sector. So-called advanced biofuels are especially important as they are made from nonfood biomass like used cooking oils, tallow, and other waste and residue lipids.

Demand for those second-generation biofuels is high in Europe, and a lot of it is presently coming from China, says Elmar Baumann from the German Biofuel Industry Association (VDB).

"Imports from China have approximately doubled in the first half of 2023 compared with the previous year," Baumann told DW.

Chinese biofuel glut raises suspicion

That an increase in supply follows greater demand isn't necessarily surprising. However, in the case of advanced biofuels the production process is complex requiring specialized facilities, explains Claus Sauter, chief executive of Verbio — one of Europe's largest biodiesel producers.

A biofuel plant of the German company Verbio
Producing advanced biofuels is a complex technological process requiring massive investmentImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

Sauter told DW that it would usually take about three years to design and construct an advanced-biofuel plant. China's massive shipments to Europe, however, have come virtually "out of nowhere."

What also raised his suspicion, Sauter said, was the high product quality and its meager price. "The Chinese offer this stuff at half the price, even though shipping costs alone make up 20% of the product price. That can't be right," the CEO told DW.

Biofuel industry lobbyist Baumann is also skeptical. "We have strong doubts that the raw materials China supposedly collects are really ingredients of their biofuel products," he said. Baumann speculates that cheaper palm oil is being reclassified and added.

Biofuels for climate targets

Under European Union climate legislation, the oil and gas industry, as well as transportation and some other sectors are forced to reduce their carbon footprint by 8% in 2023. Simultaneously, the share of advanced biofuels must reach at least 0.3% in the fuels they use or produce.

The share of conventional biofuels such as those made from rapeseed, soy or cereals is limited, however, because they are supposed to be mainly used for food. They also count only half as much compared with advanced biofuels under the EU's industrial emission reduction targets. That is why fuel producers prefer to add advanced biofuels to their products.

A glas jar with biodiesel in front of a rapeseed field
Biofuels from rapeseed are less expensive than those made from waste, and count less toward emissions reduction targetsImage: picture-alliance/All Canada Photos/D. Reede

Price pressure building amid unchecked supplies

But what appears to be a profitable business for advanced-biofuel producers, with guaranteed demand from fuel companies and plenty of state subsidies, has turned on its face due to a glut of cheap supplies from China. Market prices for the new fuels have plunged 50% since the beginning of the year.

The EU-based trade association for waste-derived biofuels, EWABA, warned in early June that the drop in market prices could lead to the closure of some European manufacturers.

"The situation is so serious that currently eleven of our member companies have stopped production and another 10 facilities are working significantly below their normal production and are considering suspending production in the short term," EWABA said in a press release. This means that nearly half of all production sites in Europe are struggling or already closed production facilities.

Baumann said that the problem with advanced biofuels is that "even in the laboratory, it isn't possible to determine the raw material from which the fuel was made." Content control would solely rely on "the paperwork" provided to the authorities, he added, which manufacturers use to document their production, the origin of the raw materials, and the greenhouse gas reduction.

How the world got addicted to palm oil

However, EU certification requirements do not mandate that private auditing companies investigate whether a facility can even process the mostly heavily contaminated raw materials for advanced biofuels, Baumann noted.

Furthermore, auditors should normally be accompanied by a state official to see if checks are according to the law. In China, he said, "random checks are not allowed as the Chinese government prohibits the entry of foreign state representatives."

Small wonder then that European biofuel companies are increasingly wondering if advanced biofuel from China is really made from waste and residual materials, or something else.

A Chinese family enjoys mutton hot pot at a restaurant
Is China's advanced biofuel really made of used cooking oil its producers claim to have collectedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Chang

The palm oil trace

In the search for clues about what makes China's advanced biofuels so cheap, the spotlight has recently trained on palm oil as a forbidden ingredient.

The cheap oil is controversially discussed in the multiple sectors where it's used, including the food industry, energy production, cosmetics and fuel for transportation. Palm oil is linked to the destruction of rainforests in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia which are among the world's biggest producers and exporters of the oil.

In view of this, the EU has revised its biofuel policy to phase out palm oil-based biodiesel by 2030. From 2023, palm oil imports to the bloc have been capped.

This aerial photo shows a palm oil plantation  in a protected area of the Rawa Singkil wildlife reserve in Trumon, Indonesia
Palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia have a dirty environemental recordImage: JANUAR/AFP/Getty Images

Lobbyist Elmar Baumann said that a senior executive told him a few months ago about a visit to China where he saw ships from Indonesia arrive. The executive was told that the ships carried Indonesian biodiesel made from palm oil which would be rebranded in China and sold to Europe. 

Further evidence about China's allegedly fake biofuels reached the German agricultural authorities charged with biofuel certification in March. They launched an official investigation and filed a lawsuit against some importers with the public prosecutor's office in Bonn, Germany.

But by the end of June, neither the German government nor the European Commission has found enough evidence to support their cases. Nevertheless, they have revoked certifications for one company following inspections of three biodiesel plants in Europe.

German biofuel producers aren't happy with the outcome of the probe. Elmar Baumann demands that the entire biofuels certification process be reviewed.

"Given the deficiencies in certification practices and the lack of independent controls in China, the German government must suspend the double counting for such biofuels in the short term," he said.

Verbio CEO Sauter warns that in the future so-called greenwashing could happen in more industries, including steel, aluminum, and notably hydrogen.

"Each of these products has a fossil sibling. There could be Chinese ships full of supposedly green hydrogen that might actually have been produced from Russian gas," he said, adding that China's fake products might eventually kill off local German industries and in the end increase dependence on the Asian powerhouse.

This article was originally written in German.