How Green Was My Palm Oil: New EU Standards for Sustainable Biofuels Rekindle Debate

A Lufthansa flight last week marked the first time an airline has used biofuels on a standard commercial flight. The airline says the mixture of regular jet fuel and biofuel (made from jatropha and camelina plants and animal fats) will help power daily flights on the Hamburg-Frankfurt run during a six-month trial. Lufthansa expects using the mixture will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 1,500 metric tons during that period.

This high-flying demonstration of the technical advances of transport fuels grown on a farm instead of drilled from the ground comes as the economic and environmental benefits of biofuels are being hotly debated in Europe.

In Brussels, the European Commission just approved sustainability standards for biofuels that are supposed to make sure they’re produced in ways that don’t hurt the environment or exploit the world’s poor.

But environmental groups say the new standards fail to address biofuels’ shortcomings, and a series of leaked EU reports are casting doubt on the long-term viability of the entire enterprise.

About eight years ago, Europe jumped on the biofuels bandwagon with both feet. Making fuel from crops looked like a great way to boost local agriculture, decrease the need to foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gases, to boot. What was not to like?

So in 2003, EU policymakers started handing out subsidies and tax breaks for producers to make a range of biofuels. Farmers were paid 45 euros per hectare (about $27 per acre) to grow biofuel crops, and they quickly became very popular with farmers. I remember noticing in the summer of 2006 that many of the fields surrounding my house in the countryside of Normandy had suddenly turned from corn or wheat to the bright yellow of rapeseed, a major biodiesel feedstock.

Europe set a goal of getting nearly 6 percent of its transportation fuels from plants by 2010 (that target was later raised to 10 percent by 2020). And a biodiesel industry – now valued at more than 8 billion euros ($12 billion) – quickly sprang to meet that demand.

But by 2007, a growing tide of reports and studies was casting doubt on just how “green” biofuels really were, especially when taking into account where and how they were grown, processed and transported. For example, The Netherlands cut off subsidies for importing palm oil when it was shown that much of the feedstock was grown on tropical plantations that had been reclaimed by draining peat bogs. Palm oil was also being produced on farmland created by clearing and burning rainforests. Both activities release far more carbon into the atmosphere than the biodiesel they produced could ever save.

Another factor that took the shine off biofuels was a new concept called “indirect land-use change.” The idea was that if you grow fuel crops where food crops had been grown – or even could be grown – you’re displacing food that would otherwise go to feed hungry people. And if that food is grown elsewhere, the theory goes, it’s likely going to lead to the conversion to farmland of more rainforests or peat bogs or other environmentally sensitive lands.

That’s led to more research going into developing fuels from forest waste, inedible plants that can be grown on marginal land and even algae. But those technologies are still far from being commercially viable.

Now – just as EU energy chief Guenther Oettinger announced new policies meant to discourage dirty biofuel and improve sustainability – four EU documents have been leaked that raise questions about whether biofuels do more harm than good. The reports indicate scientific advisors to the European Commission think many of the benefits of biofuels are cancelled out by its indirect impacts on people and the planet.

Oettinger announced the standards saying,

“We need to make sure that the entire biofuels’ production and supply chain is sustainable. This is why we have set the highest sustainability standards in the world. The schemes recognised on the EU level today are a good example of a transparent and reliable system which ensures that these high standards are met.”

But while the World Wildlife Fund gave the plan a lukewarm endorsement, other environmental groups slammed the plan for failing to adequately deal with biofuels’ downside. Greenpeace says biofuels that offer little environmental advantage over fossil fuels shouldn’t be given credit for being renewable.

It appears that, despite its attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the EU is actually promoting the adoption of the most climate-damaging biofuels, undermining its own policies.”

Friends of the Earth dismissed the plan, saying it “makes a mockery of any attempts to make EU biofuel policy sustainable.

Indirect land-use change (or ILUC, as acronym-loving eurocrats quickly dubbed it) is still a controversial proposition. The European Biodiesel Board – the EU federation of biodiesel producers – describes ILUC as “a highly debatable, yet undemonstrated concept.” Like biodiesel boosters in the US, the European trade group says the methodologies for determining whether biofuels are sustainable or not is based on inadequate models and flawed assumptions, and fails to adequately account for many factors that contribute to biofuels’ sustainability.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that torching Indonesian rainforests to grow palm oil is a bad environmental bargain. And while the impact biofuels could have on food availability and prices is still debated, the image of the rich countries taking corn out of the begging bowl of the world’s poorest so we can drive our SUVs is deeply uncomfortable.

The European Commission is caught between scientific advisors who say the most-common biofuels are often environmentally or socially damaging, and a multi-billion-euro industry that insists it can sustainably deliver the goods, given time. The latest policy shows Mr. Oettinger and his associates are trying to thread the needle, buying that time for the industry to make good on its pledge.

But as they say, “Nature bats last.” And if we put our eggs in the biofuels basket, and widespread biofuel use really does turn out to be as harmful as some predict, the damage will be done, and shutting down the industry won’t be any cheaper or less painful further down the road.

2 Responses to How Green Was My Palm Oil: New EU Standards for Sustainable Biofuels Rekindle Debate

  1. Linda Audrain says:

    The whole idea of biofuels never did seem quite right to me. Good blog, Liam!

  2. Goodness me … Do I have a soapbox on this topic? Oh, yeah! It’s one of the biggest in my collection! I like to think of myself as a reasonable environmentalist, but reasonable doesn’t seem to exist in this debate. I like your phrase; “…eggs in the biofuels basket.” There are way more eggs in that basket than what’s reasonable. Thanks for doing the research and being brave enough to be reasonable!

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