Biofuels must be part of the transport sector’s decarbonisation plan

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Rapeseed is one of the main sources of biofuels in Germany. [Susanne Nilsson/Flickr]

Biofuels present an opportunity to decarbonise the transport sector in the medium term. This should not be squandered because of misplaced fears over land use change, writes Elmar Baumann.

Elmar Baumann is the managing director of the Association of the German Biofuels Industry.

After the dust of the COP21 in Paris has settled it now is time for action. The implementation of the European Union 2030 Climate and Energy Package will be a litmus test to see whether Paris really stands for a substantial change towards a low carbon EU policy. Until now, no binding contribution is foreseen for the traffic sector. Without appropriate EU regulation, the decarbonisation of the sector would stop after 2020 at worst. The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) that set mandatory targets for 2020 will be revised in 2016 for the subsequent time. The urgency to set ambitious goals is obvious, as 30% of the energy demand and approximately 25% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU come from aviation, shipping and road traffic. Although their contribution to replace fossil fuels is limited, biodiesel and bioethanol will have to play an important role in reducing GHG emissions in the short and medium term, and maybe beyond.

Biodiesel and bioethanol reduce GHG emissions by more than 60% compared to fossil fuels today, depending on the feedstock and the production process. According to European legislation, biofuels must be produced in a sustainable way. This means that no rainforests can be destroyed in order to produce feedstock for biodiesel or bioethanol. Auditors are controlling farmers and biofuels producers worldwide to ensure that these laws are obeyed. 

Still there are strong reservations towards the use of biofuels. That is why many are hoping for e-mobility as an alternative. The COP21 in Paris saw some very promising initiatives for the transport sector such as the Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change. While e-mobility will be an alternative for passenger cars and light duty vehicles in the future, it can clearly only reduce emissions if the power used comes from renewable sources. But as long as there are not enough charging facilities available, as long as batteries are still expensive and their charging speed is slow, e-mobility has a problem in consumer acceptance. The power stored in 1kg of battery is approximately 60 times lower than in 1kg of fuel. As a consequence e-mobility will not play a role in heavy duty transportation in the short and medium term. In that sense biofuels and e-mobility are natural partners: a perfect liaison for renewable energy and decarbonisation in road traffic with biofuels preferably used in range extenders and heavy duty vehicles for road transport.

The iLUC-theory

Critics say that the GHG balance of biofuels is not complete as it does not contain the emissions caused by indirect land use change (iLUC). According to the proponents of the iLUC-theory, the GHG balance of biofuels can even be negative if effects from the logging of rainforests are included into the calculation.

But stopping the use of biofuels would not prevent the clearing of rainforests, while at the same time the only existing alternative to fossil fuels would be banned – a missed opportunity because of a dubious theory.

Indirect effects on the use of land cannot be seen or measured, therefore they must be modelled. Depending on the model used, values for iLUC vary immensely according to the existing scientific literature. iLUC factors can be either some 200% below or some 1700% above the fossil fuels value. The uncertainty range for iLUC factors is even larger than the substantial differences between the data of all types of food from lentils via tomatoes, cheese and even chicken to beef and lamb. It is not only about the size of the numbers, it is even unclear whether the iLUC effect of certain biofuels is positive or negative.

In order to tackle the problem of land use change two measures should be taken: the EU should prohibit the use of crops from areas were rainforest has been cut down – irrespective of the later use of the feedstock; and it should expand the application of sustainability criteria that are in place for biofuels to other users of agricultural commodities. That way the use of palm oil from land formerly covered with rainforest would not only be forbidden for producing biofuels but also for food and chemicals.

Food AND Fuel

Other opponents of the European biofuel policy claim that if agricultural commodities are used to produce fuel prices for food rise, causing hunger.

The organisations arguing this way are the same that used to call for higher prices in the 1980s and 1990s, stating that low crop prices were destroying local markets and were hindering investment in the agricultural sectors of developing countries. There are many reasons for hunger in the world which existed long before biofuels became an issue.

Wars and civil wars, poverty, corruption and extreme weather conditions are among them, but not biofuels. While biodiesel and bioethanol production could influence prices on global commodity markets, the price transmission into local markets in developing countries is very limited. So even if biofuels had the effect on global market prices that critics claim, this does not mean that their influence on prices at a local level is relevant. While the production of biodiesel and bioethanol has risen throughout the last years, the food price index calculated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has declined and is at a level that causes concern about the lack of investment.

Finally one main reason for hunger is lacking income especially for poor farmers. Biofuels could give them the opportunity to gain additional income.

So instead of hysterically crying “NO!” as soon as the word “biofuels” is used, each project should be evaluated and opportunities and threats assessed.

Without a clear and ambitious target for the EU transport sector the Paris agreement remains an ineffective, useless piece of paper. Until other alternatives are available, biodiesel and bioethanol must take over.