EU biofuels claim challenged by academic study


German researchers have unveiled evidence suggesting that EU claims, according to which locally-produced rapeseed biodiesel cut back at least 38% of greenhouse gases (GHG) compared with fossil fuels,  are unfounded.

Two experts at Jena’s Schiller University in eastern Germany used the same calculation system as that applied by the European Commission, but found that in eight out of 12 scenarios rapeseed biodiesel failed to meet the 35% GHG savings level or threshold stipulated by the 2009 renewable energy directive, and normally falls below 30%.

The findings by academics Gernot Pehnelt and Christoph Vietze come as the rapeseed harvest is in full swing in producing countries, such as France and Germany – and prices for the feedstock are increasing.

Biofuel use is increasing in attempt to cut emissions

They also coincide with new proposals to cut carbon emissions from new cars to 95 grams per kilometre – partly by relying more extensively on blending biofuels with conventional petrol and diesel. Civil and military aviation is also stepping up the experimental use of biofuels in jet engines.

The German experts used publicly available data for their research, which they claimed is more comprehensive than other independent analysis, but said their investigations had been hampered by the EU’s refusal to release all its data. Requests for information from the Joint Research Centre went unanswered, they said.

The EU’s lack of transparency has already been challenged by NGOs such as ClientEarth and the authors claimed this added weight to the “simple and unavoidable” conclusion that the Brussels data on rapeseed oil’s alleged GHG savings is deliberately over-stated, and “political” rather than “scientific”.

Commission defends data

A spokeswoman for the Commission declined to comment specifically on the report, but said: “Different studies can come to different results, depending on the assumptions used.”

She did, however, defend the Commission data, stating that “the figures used as default values by the Commission are the result of a comprehensive process including input from world leading experts, where all input data and assumptions are freely available.”

She added: “The claim that data would not be shared by the Commission is not correct, all data is published on the JRC's website.”

The new study’s authors suggested that EU biofuels policy may – as claimed by some NGOs – be a form of industrial policy in all but name and be driven by “green protectionism” to exclude imported sources of biodiesel on behalf of European agri-business.

 “Our results indicate that the ‘sustainability’ of rapeseed biodiesel in the interpretation of the renewable energy directive (RED) is at best very questionable and in most scenarios simply unjustifiable,” the study’s authors said.

“What we need is transparency. The EC hesitates to publish all the background data and promises to come up with new calculations for individual biofuels but they have not come up with any values yet,” according to Jena University’s Dr Gernot Pehnelt, one of the report’s authors.

“They don’t provide any transparency. We want to compare our method with their method and background data – and that’s the best way for discussing whether rapeseed biofuel and others are sustainable or not,” Pehnelt added.

Germany, Spain, France and Italy are the EU’s biggest producers of rapeseed oil – and home to the bulk of its auto industry, which actively promotes the use of biodiesel in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

European biodiesel output (up to 10 million tonnes a year) relies heavily on rapeseed oil but this year’s crop may be a million tonnes less than in 2011, at 18 million tonnes, forcing up prices.

  • 2012: European Commission scheduled to announce new indirect land use sustainability criteria for biofuels. 
  • 2014: Renewable Energy Directive due to be reviewed
  • 2020: Deadline for EU target of 10% of transport fuels to be met by renewable energy

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