Backtracking on biofuels

Bio-Diesel Agrotreibstoffe
Article as analysis
Biofuels were immensely popular some years ago. At last, we could drive our cars without harming the climate! And yet its environmental and developmental problems have long been known. Politicians are only now beginning to react.

In the autumn 2012, droughts in the USA and India as well as food price increases rekindled the de-bate as to the utility of biofuels. In Germany, the trouble was ignited by the E10 biofuel mix, which is petrol with a 10 per cent bioethanol blend, and whose market share according to the newspaper «Die Welt» is some 14 per cent. Development Minister Niebel (FDP) even called for a ban.

The EU backtracks

The European Union (EU) hit the brakes. At the end of October, the EU Commission decided that the share of plant-based biogenic fuels should remain at its current five per cent and not be increased to 10 per cent as planned. Besides, the subsidies are to be eliminated by 2020. Instead, the EU wishes to promote fuels made from waste and algae. Member countries and the EU Parliament are yet to approve these plans.

The EU is thus drawing lessons that it could already have done in 2009. For it was already known then that biofuels were not a suitable means of reducing greenhouse gases and that they pose a danger to food security (see Alliance Sud News Winter 2006/07). Environmental specialists such as the experts at the Swiss Federal Materials Testing Institute (Empa) had already determined in 2007 that biofuels could prove an even greater burden on the climate than conventional fuels, because in many places forests were being cleared to make way for agricultural cropland. In the process, huge amounts of previously sequestered CO2 were being set free. Moreover, ever-greater use was being made of arti-ficial fertilisers and pesticides, the production of which releases nitrous oxide – an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Nevertheless, in the 2009 Directive for Renewable Energies the EU approved the aforementioned binding target of obtaining 10 per cent of fuels from energy crops by 2020. The negative side effects were to be addressed through binding sustainability criteria: to avoid increased greenhouse gas emis-sions as a result of deforestation or the loss of environmentally valuable areas, raw materials for bio-fuels may not originate from deforested areas or from areas that previously had a rich biodiversity.

These criteria, however, do not address indirect changes in land use. The transformation of swathes of forest into farmland for food production, which will later give way to the cultivation of energy crops, is still a critical factor in the negative greenhouse gas balance of biogenic fuels. Their overall ecological footprint, which covers additional factors such as energy consumption and soil loading, is worse than that of fossil fuels in most cases. An Empa study published last September states that only biogas from residues and waste can considerably lessen the environmental impact.

More cautious Swiss policy

For once, Switzerland's policymakers are acting in a forward-looking manner. They have decided against a blending target. However, since the amendment of the Mineral Oil Tax Ordinance (2008) biofuels have been tax-free if they comply with minimum requirements for a positive ecological bal-ance, and if they come from raw materials that were produced in compliance with local social stan-dards. The environmental criteria include a reduction of at least 40 per cent in greenhouse gases by comparison with fossil fuels, as well as protecting the rainforest and the biodiversity. Fuels derived from palm oil, soy and grains are generally not considered sustainable.

Additional CO2 emissions through indirect changes in land use and the associated competition with food crops are not recorded in Switzerland, however. Despite this, the offset obligation is waived for biofuels that fulfil the tax exemption criteria under the new CO2 Ordinance (effective 1.1.2013). Fuel importers, who are obliged by the CO2 law to offset a part of the emissions from fossil fuels by pur-chasing CO2 certificates, are now exempt from this requirement. This is so although no real climatic benefit from the blending of biofuel has been ascertained.

Tightening Swiss criteria

It would be crucially important to tighten the criteria for the tax exemption such that they cover indirect changes in land use. The 2009 parliamentary initiative by the National Council's Environmental Com-mission also calls for this, but it is still pending. This is the only way to ensure that the presumed saving in CO2 emissions, for which importers in Switzerland can make allowance, is not emitted else-where.