Biofuels: Good news and false solutions

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

Within the next few months, the path for the future of biofuels in the EU will be set as the debate on indirect land use change (iLUC) is back on the agenda. argues Elmar Baumann.

Elmar Baumann is CEO of the Association of German Biofuels Producers (VDB).

While the discussion hots up, there is good news for all those in favour of biodiesel and bioethanol as more scientific work on iLUC has been published. ILUC means that some of the greenhouse gasses (GHG) emitted by biofuels are displaced – these would have to be considered in the GHG balance of biofuels. The criticism of the iLUC-model now goes beyond the fact that the extent of emissions caused by indirect land use change is very uncertain – iLUC factors can be either some 200% below or some 1700% above the fossil fuels value. It also becomes evident that ILUC as determined in economic models is not an irreversible fact, but a risk that can be mitigated and in many cases even prevented. And another stunning inconsistency in the iLUC discussion has surfaced, as the scientific basis for the distinction between biodiesel and bioethanol is called into question. The distinction seems to stem from a different evaluation of how biodiesel contributes to the production of animal feed compared to ethanol. But feeding experts doubt that such a distinction can be made, putting another big question mark over the scientific thoroughness of the still young iLUC-theory.

And there is another piece of good news: While much criticism of biodiesel and bioethanol was fuelled by the allegation that they contributed to hunger worldwide, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) just called for a paradigm shift. FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said: “We need to move from the food versus fuel debate to a food and fuel debate. There is no question: food comes first,” he said, adding: “But biofuels should not be simply seen as a threat or as a magical solution. Like anything else, they can do good or bad.” According to FAO evidence, sustainable biofuel production systems, when developed responsibly, can offer an additional source of income for poor farmers.

ILUC-regulation will not only address 1st-generation biofuels, but also impact the work of EU farmers, the worldwide sustainable production of biomass that is in line with EU standards, the hopes of rural farmers and the development of food security in developing countries. Putting an end to 1st generation biofuels in the EU on arbitrary grounds would destroy more than just biofuels.

Letting the biofuel production plants run until they are paid off and then closing them down is one so-called solution to the biofuels file that points entirely in the wrong direction. This procedure is labelled as “saving investments that were made”. Burying 1st generation biofuels would consequently ruin investor confidence and market relevance so that the 2nd generation would die before seeing the light of day. Closing biofuel plants after pay-off also shows a deep misunderstanding of how a business is run and a crooked view of entrepreneurship. Producing biofuels is more than just a cold hearted question of amortization; it is about giving people employment, saving GHG-emissions and manufacturing a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

Many argue that instead of using 1st generation biofuels, so-called advanced biofuels, should be used in the future. There is nothing wrong with promoting 2nd generation biofuels and the great example of the wood based biofuels produced in Finland is very promising. But what many proponents do not seem to realize is that these advanced biofuels are not available to the extent foreseen in the past. And political uncertainty has not helped their development. The advanced biofuels mandate in the United Sates under the Renewable Fuels Standard gives a daunting example. Here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dropped the cellulosic biofuels standard for 2012 to zero after a federal court vacated it and strongly reduced the mandates for 2013 and 2014 because not enough 2nd generation biofuels were available. The investment needed to establish 2nd generation biofuel sites, such as the new site in Finland (175 Mio. €), is around 4 times higher than the 1st generation. And while NGOs are promoting biofuels made from algae as 3rd generation biofuels, their producers face rigorous opposition from the very same NGOs who are also opposed to genetically modified plants.

What the biofuel industry needs is a supportive legal framework that secures the jobs and the production sites. Any regulation should consider that the volumes of biofuels that are in the market today will not cause any indirect land use change in the future; therefore any cap on 1st generation biofuels must be iLUC-free. New regulation can only come with a sense of proportion, especially when taking into account that fossil fuels will be more harmful to the environment and the climate in the future and that biodiesel and bioethanol are the only available alternative to them.

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