Post date: Wednesday, 17th October 2012

Biodiesel will stay in tanks following policy U-turn


Jatropha, a second-generation biofuel crop. Still a good candidate for biodiesel production, but palm oil will continue to cause destruction.

A policy U-turn by the European Commission, on the indirect effects on land use and greenhouse gas emissions caused by biofuels, has managed to upset almost all parties.

Changes being published today to draft proposals for a revision of the Biofuels Directive, now mean that biofuel suppliers will not be held accountable, after all, for greenhouse gas emissions, caused, for example, by displacing food production into new areas.

The target for biofuel use set four years ago in the 2009 Directive has resulted in forest clearance and the draining of peatland in places like Indonesia to grow palm oil, a process known as indirect land-use change (ILUC for short). The policy has been controversial for driving up food prices and the destruction of richly biodiverse habitats.

ILUC was to have been banned under the revised Directive, but now its avoidance will only be recommended, i.e. suppliers will have to report the origin of their fuel and its sustainability, but will not have to meet the guidelines.

This part of the Biofuels Directive affects so-called first-generation biodiesel, derived from food crops, or crops grown on former virgin rainforest land, or on otherwise agricultural land, and include wheat, maize, soya, rape, palm oil and sugar cane.

The new EU proposals will still reduce the proportion of crop-based biofuels in the total EU transport energy consumption from 10% to 5% by 2020. Other sources of biofuels will have to make up the remaining 5% of the total target.

Biodiesel lobby fury

The change in policy was caused by furious lobbying from the European biodiesel industry that it would face ruin.

Isabelle Maurizi, of the European Biodiesel Board, said she was looking at the end of the biodiesel industry in Europe. “If you were an oil company, would you buy my product? If you were a member state would you want to foster my product? No you wouldn’t.”

But with the U-turn in place, biodiesel is back on track to meet up to 92% of the EU’s 2020 target, according to Catherine Bowyer, Senior Policy Analyst, at the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), at least until 2020, after which it will still decline.

Bioethanol lobby anger

Bioethanol, on the other hand, is made from the inedible parts of crops, such as wheat straw and seed husks, forestry and forest residues, as well as dedicated energy crops. It is known as a second-generation biofuel.

The bioethanol industry had hoped to benefit from the inclusion of ILUC factors in the legislation, since the fuel causes far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than biodiesel. It had been gearing up for expansion.

Now it is furious as well. "If no-one is going to invest in us anymore I think we should sue the European Commission for killing an industry," Rob Vierhout, the secretary-general of ePure, Europe’s bioethanol association said.

Third-generation fuels such as those derived from algae and furanics could still contribute to the Directive's target, but none of these are in a commercial stage yet. Because of this, they, and second generation biofuels, will be quadruple-counted within the EU's 10% target, to incentivise investment.

Other second-generation biofuels include:

  • dedicated energy crops such as miscanthus and willow
  • oil crops such as Jatropha other biomass-to-diesel, which could come from a biorefinery process that starts with the gasification of biomass, and fuels produced via the Fischer-Tropsch process
  • bio-butanol and DME
  • bio-synthetic gas, also known as Biosyngas or BioSNG.

Subsidies for Europe’s €17bn a year biofuels industry are due to end after 2020 anyway, unless they lead to “substantial greenhouse gas savings”.

Campaigners’ disappointment

Although there is this a small degree of scientific uncertainty about exactly how much greenhouse gas emission is caused by different supply chains for different biofuels, there is no uncertainty about other sustainability aspects of biodiesel crops when grown in developing countries.

According to Rahmawati Retno Winari, the director of Indonesia’s Palm Oil watch NGO, “The issue is about land tenure. The biofuels are grown in [what were] forests and forest is never empty. The forest-dependent communities live there and they are forcibly evicted from their homes so that the palm oil plantations can be developed without their consent. When they start to protest for their rights, they face violence from the police.”

Campaigners are furious as well. "We've waited two years, and what we've ended up with is an ILUC proposal from the Commission without any ILUC in it," said Laura Sullivan, European Advocacy Coordinator for anti-poverty campaigners Action Aid.

"Paradoxically, the Commission is putting out an ILUC proposal without making fuel suppliers account for ILUC emissions, even though the science has shown that these indirect emissions can make biofuels worse for the climate than fossil fuels," said Nusa Urbancic, fuels campaigner with green transport campaigners T&E.

The Commission will formally present its proposals on Wednesday, after which the rules must be jointly agreed by EU governments and lawmakers in a process that could take up to two years.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Although there is, as yet, no standardised methodology for assessing the greenhouse gas emissions of all biofuels, comparisons can still be made. Emissions of biofuels can be reduced in five ways:

  1. By growing dedicated energy crops which that do not require prime agricultural land.
  2. Growing crops which require limited use of fertiliser and other inputs.
  3. Growing crops which require less intensive or energy-hungry processing.
  4. Growing crops which help to increase soil carbon sequestration on marginal land.
  5. Developing more integrated production systems for food and fuel, such as through agro-forestry and the greater use of co-products.

The IEA technology roadmap, Biofuels for Transport, argues that most conventional biofuel technologies need to improve conversion efficiency, cost and overall sustainability, and that second-generation biofuels need to prove they can be commercial without their life-cycle impacts compromising food security and biodiversity, at the same time yielding positive social impacts.

It calculates that the world would need around 100m hectares (1m square kilometeres), or over four times the area of the United Kingdom, to grow all the feedstock for the biofuels it expects we would need in 2050 to satisfy a demand of 145 exajoules (EJ = 1018 joules).

The European Union is attempting to address direct land-use emissions through employing sustainability criteria under the Renewable Energy Directive.

These require that biofuels and bioliquids should deliver emissions savings of at least 35% over their lifetime compared to transport fossil fuels, rising to 50% in 2017 and 60% in 2018.

This effectively rules out peatland, wetland and rainforest. Further criteria are expected, as well as standards and monitoring to ensure compliance.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor

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