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Dutch Report to European Parliament Recommends Reconsidering 10% Biofuels Target for Transport Sector

In a study presented to the European Parliament, The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP, Milieu en Natuur Planbureau) concluded that replacing transport fuels with current biofuels is not the best investment in sustainability, and that the EU should reconsider its current obligatory 10% target by 2020 for biofuels in transport.

The potential of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 with a 10% biofuel target is quite low, according to the report, Local and global consequences of the EU renewable directive for biofuels. The current plan would result in a reduction of 3-5% per kilometer—far less than the increase in transport kilometers—according to the analysis.

Alternatives for the transport sector do exist. The most important (new) driving technologies for vehicles are: steep increase of fuel efficiency of existing petrol and diesel engines, further stimulation of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and completely electric cars or fuel cell cars on hydrogen.

The costs of the latter are still relatively high, because they are in the development phase. There are lots of uncertainties about their role in future. However, in a long-term transition process towards a new transport system, their potential seems high, although their impact depends on the sustainability of the hydrogen production and the generation of electricity. The proposed target in the Commission’s proposal, weighted with final energy consumption, is not stimulating these alternatives routes.

Although hydrogen and electricity are promising fuels for transport when the potential distance travelled per kilometre is assessed, further improvement of the performance of fuel-cells, batteries and cost reduction are necessary to make them realistic alternatives. There is no certainty that these improvements can be realised in time or at all. Therefore at this moment, it is best to support all alternatives for transport. This Commission’s proposal does not.

Among the key messages of the report are:

  • The 10% biofuel transport target can only be met by imports from outside the EU. Considering default projections, 10% of the European transport consumption in 2020 amounts to around 35 million tonnes of oil equivalent. When grown in Europe with existing technologies (first generation, or agrofuels), an area of 20 to 30 million hectares is needed for the production of biofuels.

    An area of this size, within Europe, would only become available after liberalization of the agricultural policy of the EU. However, a fully operational free trade system would mean that the EU would produce only half of the necessary crops. The other half would be imported, because of cheaper production elsewhere.

  • Global land use will increase in the coming decades. The additional land demand for biofuels comes on top of default baseline developments as shown in this report. Even in a baseline where no explicit biofuel policies are assumed, total land use is projected to increase.

    The total area of wheat, maize, oilseeds and sugar cane is projected to grow by 10% between 2000 and 2020, already assuming substantial improvements in yield. With additional biofuel policies in the United States and the EU, an additional growth of 5% may be expected. This effect cannot be offset entirely by further yield growth. Therefore, the report concludes, demand for biofuels will put additional pressure on land. This additional pressure on land, globally, asks for sustainability criteria.

  • Greenhouse gas reductions will not necessarily reach 35%. The default values used in calculating greenhouse gas emissions are not necessarily met by ‘real’ production. Firstly, an excessive use of fertilizer may lead to additional N2O emissions, leading to lower greenhouse gas reductions than presented by the default values. Secondly, economic operators may adjust the default greenhouse gas emissions in specific parts of the processing steps in the Commission’s proposal. More importantly, the report says, even the most carefully selected default values will not cover all negative side effects of biofuel production. Through displacement effects and the loss of soil carbon by other agricultural practices, some production chains may indirectly lead to a negative impact of biofuels. These aspects cannot be covered by the default values for greenhouse gas reductions. Therefore, global displacement effects should play a more important role in the sustainability criteria than is currently the case in the proposal for a Renewable Directive.

  • Impacts on biodiversity can be negative in the short-term. The land exclusion criteria in the Commission’s proposal are effectively targeted at several valuable land cover types, that either contain high soil carbon stocks or high biodiversity values. Categories of land which may be used for biofuel, are abandoned agricultural lands (from crop growth) and natural grasslands with low biodiversity values. Moderately degraded lands can also be used. Using abandoned intensively used agricultural lands and (moderately) degraded lands may be beneficial, as biofuel crop production can help to restore the biodiversity in these ecosystems.

    However, (semi-)natural and extensively used grasslands remain under further threat with the proposed land use criteria. Furthermore, a global analysis of available lands shows that the amount of abandoned areas, alone, will probably not be enough to meet the targets of the EU and the United States. This will add pressure to the global extent of natural and semi-natural grasslands.

    An analysis with a ‘biodiversity balance’ indicator shows that, in most cases, the greenhouse gas reductions from biofuel production are not enough to compensate for biodiversity losses from land use change. This result will be even worse if soil carbon emissions from land use change are taken into account. In total, the European criteria are probably effective in preventing biodiversity loss within the European Union, as soon as a clear definition of highly biodiverse grasslands is given. Outside the EU, biodiversity loss cannot be ruled out, especially not in grassland areas.

    Moreover, through the displacement effect of current agricultural practices, biodiversity loss may even be aggravated due to the push for biofuels.

  • Second generation biofuels will also need land. Conclusions on the merits of first or second generation biofuels can only be drawn when the full production chain is considered and the total energy content of the production chain per hectare is considered, according to the report.

    When soil emissions are excluded, most of the values of each production chain are emission reductions of between 5 and 15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year, and 50 to 200 GJ per hectare. For biofuel production chains, which deliver byproducts such as animal feed, the energy values may be much larger when substitution of all byproducts is considered. Examples of these production chains are wheat and rapeseed.

    Applying the Commission’s soil carbon contents, the potential soil emissions, following undesired land conversion, may reach a value of 18 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year, for a period of several decades. This conversion means that almost none of the biofuels can comply with the criterion of 35% reduction.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP) supports national and international policy makers by analyzing the environmental impact of policies and of trends in society. It provides independent integrated assessments on such topics such as sustainable development, energy and climate change, biodiversity, transport, land use and air quality.

Resources

Comments

Jonas

Well, based on these findings, the EU should put a 50% biofuels target in place.

That would at last help 2 billion poor farmers in the developing world, who would at last be able to crawl out of poverty.

It's not like there's not enough land or something. The real problem is a lack of investment in land in developing countries.

The EU should make a 50% biofuel blend compulsory. Now. To make up for its decennia of keeping farmers in the South down and in poverty.

BlackSun

The fossil industry LOVES this kind of waffling. Instead of talking about lowering the targets, raise them and make them specific to second and third generation biofuels. Also, include a mandatory phase-out of food-based fuel crops within 5-8 years tops.

Lowering the overall targets for biofuels only prolongs the petro-agony. And it will be agony. If they don't ramp up biofuels way beyond 20% and soon, Europeans will be looking back at the good-old-days of $9/gallon gasoline they "enjoy" now.

Rafael Seidl

The EU's biofuels target may have been marketed as an climate-related initiative, but in reality it has always been about replacing energy imports with domestic production. Unfortunately, it turns out that feedstock yields in Europe simply aren't high enough so we're back to imports. There is value in diversification, but with oil at $105/barrel and all other forms of energy more or less tied to the price of oil, that's still a major capital outflow.

In this sense, biofuels should not be thought of purely as alternatives to gasoline and diesel in the on-road transportation sector. An intelligent approach might be to limit the required biofuel fraction of the total energy mix to the amount that can reasonably be satisfied with existing technology applied by EU farmers. At the same time, the EU should spend more on ramping up sustainable biofuels and less - or nothing - on subsidies to rape seed producers.

The focus going forward should be on cheap and simple biogas production and electricity generation systems (remote farms), on biomethane production at industrial scales (farm co-ops near existing NG pipelines) and, on farming single-celled algae rich in oil or starch (Mediterranean/Black Sea countries). If and when these sustainable technologies are feasible at reasonable prices, the required biofuels fraction should be increased to encourage private sector investment.

In parallel, more needs to be done to curb fuel demand with a combination of shifting bulk freight to rail and fresh water shipping, taxes on kerosene for EU-internal flights, more efficient automotive technologies, incentives to reduce annual mileage for motor vehicles and, improved telecommuting technology (e.g. videoconferencing).

To some extent, these goals conflict with the EU's ambitions for a single market but with some lateral thinking, it should be possible to find sufficient middle ground. Conservation is still the cheapest way to reduce Europe's dependency on imported oil & gas. Any net reduction in CO2 emissions is a valuable fringe benefit.

Rafael Seidl

The EU's biofuels target may have been marketed as an climate-related initiative, but in reality it has always been about replacing energy imports with domestic production. Unfortunately, it turns out that feedstock yields in Europe simply aren't high enough so we're back to imports. There is value in diversification, but with oil at $105/barrel and all other forms of energy more or less tied to the price of oil, that's still a major capital outflow.

Perhaps it would make more sense to promote sustainable energy/fuels based on what's technologically and economically possible, rather than insist on unrealistic numerical targets for a single sector of the economy.

The low hanging fruit is increased biogas production by Europe's farms and waste management companies. The product can be burnt in specially adapted ICEs to generate electricity, which can be fed into the grid. It can also be upgraded to pipeline quality biomethane, which can be used for many applications including NG vehicles. These approaches should work well in Central and Northern Europe, where there is enough rainfall to ensure a plentiful supply of agricultural and forestry wastes.

A more ambitious objective is the industrial-scale production of starchy or oily algal biomass yielding ethanol and biodiesel, respectively. This should work well in sunny, arid regions of Southern Europe (incl. Turkey), especially if it based on treated effluent or salt water.

Harvey D

Jonas;

Incresed consumption of coffee beans, sugar and bananas etc did not benefit tropical small farms. Large coporations moved in and enslaved local people like coal miners (16 tonnes... etc ) were treated years ago.

North America and Europe have limited biofuel feedtock surpluses that could be used. USA and Canada could produce enough biofuel to replace about 50% of the fossil fuel currently used. Europe could hardly do better than 20% to 25%.

It is very doubtful that China and India could even reach the European level and feed their very large population at the same time.

Agriculture was never meant to produce liquid fuel for our gaz guzzlers.

Progressive but accellerated electrification of our transportation vehicles is the way out.

The extra electical energy required can easily be produced with wind, waves, solar, geothermal, hydro and up to date nuclear power plants.

ICE vehicles and liquid fuel (both fossil and biomass) have to be phased out over the next 20 to 25 years.

Corn and grain ethanol does not make sense. The impact on edible food will starve too many poor people. Moving production to Africa will be even worst.

Harvey D

Jonas;

Incresed consumption of coffee beans, sugar and bananas etc did not benefit tropical small farms. Large coporations moved in and enslaved local people like coal miners (16 tonnes... etc ) were treated years ago.

North America and Europe have limited biofuel feedtock surpluses that could be used. USA and Canada could produce enough biofuel to replace about 50% of the fossil fuel currently used. Europe could hardly do better than 20% to 25%.

It is very doubtful that China and India could even reach the European level and feed their very large population at the same time.

Agriculture was never meant to produce liquid fuel for our gaz guzzlers.

Progressive but accellerated electrification of our transportation vehicles is the way out.

The extra electical energy required can easily be produced with wind, waves, solar, geothermal, hydro and up to date nuclear power plants.

ICE vehicles and liquid fuel (both fossil and biomass) have to be phased out over the next 20 to 25 years.

Corn and grain ethanol does not make sense. The impact on edible food will starve too many poor people. Moving production to Africa will be even worst.

Norm

Harvey D,

Agree with you with these caveats.

We need a transition time where liquid fuels will be required. The transition away from liquid fuels to electric will require renewable liquid fuels if peak oil hits before 2020 which I am certain will happen, more likely peak is here now.

Second there will always be a need, IMHO, for some liquid fuels. There are certain applications that require liquid fuel as a portable energy dense source. Remote areas, emergency power outages, maybe even rural rail. But this consumption could ultimately be very low compared to what it is today.

I keep telling people the key is to reduce consumption first and then switch to renewable liquid fuel. The problem is if you do this now the price goes down on petroleum and renewables can't be established because they can't compete on price, no matter how green and sustainable they are.

So there is no good time to build renewable energy infrastructure, liquid or electric, because it always looks more expensive than conventional in todays dollars. Only in hind sight do you see how renewables would have saved you money if installed in past dollars but operated and paid for in todays dollars.

Harvey D

Norm:

I also agree with you that the transistion from liquid fuels to electricity will take 3 to 4 decades, even if we start now.

Considering that non-polluting energy carriers, such as hydrogen etc, could be stocked for rainy days and/or for other special applications, the need for liquid fuel, specially the fossil type, could be much lower by 2040-50.

The chemical insdustries may require biofuels as feedstocks. We have enough land to satisfy that requirement for a long time or until such time as we learn to transform electricity into chemicals.

I hope that the ICE-biofuel era does not last too long because it is not a sustainable combination.

sjc

We are headed for an oil crunch in the coming years and anything we can do now could help. Behavior is high on the list in the U.S. Stop commuting 100 miles per day in large SUVs that get 12 mpg. Once we cut out the waste, be can go on to other measures to reduce consumption.

John Baldwin

Reality is, liquid biofuels made on land that could grow food are crazy, mad, do lally, it is inevitable that they will be considered such within a couple of years, no question:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7282196.stm

It is a policy so manifestly BAD in every sense….not possible to hide that. Make biofuels from waste parts of crops instead.

clett

Zero tax for algal fuels. That would do it (along with $200 per barrel oil).

Rob Weir

The Sea would be an obvious area for expanding human endeavour / deployment of energy convertors (Initially more biological than mechanical).

Slightly horrendous from the point of view of ecological impact of new GM species, and rather low density no doubt, but ...Could we farm existing spiny (C02 sequestrating) oily/starchy phytoplankton?

Using a secondary biological agent to harvest the plankton would be called 'fishing' So I suppose we are already doing this.

Anyone else on this 'wave' length?

Harvey D

John Balwin:

I, and many more people, fully agree with you. Agriculture was never meant to feed our oversized ICE inefficient fuel guzzlers. Agriculture's priority must be to feed (but not overfeed) the world population.

However, using (real) surpluses, wastes and unused unedible biomass to make methane, electricity, essential cleaner fuels and chemicals is acceptable.

Much more efforts should be given to accellerate the transition to PHEVs and BEVs and significantly reduce liquid fuel consumption.

Switching from fossil to biofuels is not the solution. Look what happened to commodities price. Wheat went from $3.50 to $13+ a bushel in a few months. The loaf of bread will cost much more soon but not necessarily in the same proportion. Transformation + transport + sale-distribution cost + profit margins will take much longer to be factored in, but it will come as more food crops are diverted to fuel production.

MarkMC

I am wondering about solar cells. If they manage to produce a cheap one then that would blow most of this discussion away. Considering how fast tchnology can advance when there's a big economies-of-scale incentive, can we not expect that within 10 years China will be mass producing these things? Am I wrong in presuming that provided solar cells were cheap, that would be all that is required to solve our energy crisis? After all, the sun shines something like 500 W/m2, that's a lot of power. Within 10 years I'm sure we'll have some form of BEV available. Shouldn't we factor this in to our future predictions?

sjc

Solar cell will help, but something like less than .1% of the world energy come from solar. You would have to have a 10x production rate just to get it to 1%. The energy problem is SO huge worldwide that it will take everything to even begin to put a dent in it.

GreyFlcn

==Solar cell will help, but something like less than .1% of the world energy come from solar. You would have to have a 10x production rate just to get it to 1%. The energy problem is SO huge worldwide that it will take everything to even begin to put a dent in it.==

Heh, well if Solar has almost no chance, then biofuels less than zero chance ;D
greyfalcon.net/sugarsolar

As for high volume production, how about being able to print solar panels, just like newspaper.
greyfalcon.net/pv

Although my favorite is solar thermal with heat storage.
Very reliable. Cost effective. And no material supply chain limits.
greyfalcon.net/solarthermal

Anne

This NanoSolar is a company to watch. They are now shipping their first products. They promise a price for pv of 1$/Wp. That's about a fifth of todays price.

Their production process is highly scalable, so if they are willing to licence the technology, ramping up production shouldn't be a problem. If they can deliver on their promises, you bet there will be no government incentives necessary for everyone to cover their roofs in solar cells. They will sell them as fast as you print them.

Peter Hurrell

Please be drawn to the Institution of Chemical Engineers article in their Journal
801 'The Chemical Engineer'
about converting Biomass to Ethanol.

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