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German researches conclude EU rapeseed biodiesel extremely unlikely to meet current definition of sustainability

GHG emissions savings of rapeseed FAME compared to RED “typical” and “default” levels. Dashed line indicates RED threshold of 35%. Pehnelt and Vietze. Click to enlarge.

In a new analysis of GHG emissions savings potential of rapeseed biodiesel produced in the EU, a pair of researchers from GlobEcon, an independent economics and politics research and consulting institute based in Jena, Germany, conclude that the GHG emissions saving values of rapeseed biodiesel stated by the EU “are more than questionable.”

Given these striking differences as well as the lack of transparency in the EU’s calculations,” they write, “we assume that the EU seems to prefer ‘politically’ achieved typical and default values regarding rapeseed biodiesel over scientifically proven ones.” The findings are published as a Jena Economic Research Paper, a joint publication of the Friedrich Schiller University and the Max Planck Institute of Economics, Jena, Germany.

Authors Gernot Pehnelt, director at GlobEcon, and Christoph Vietze, a research fellow at GlobEcon and research partner at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena, analyzed the lifecycle GHG emissions savings potential of rapeseed biodiesel using the same basic methodology and background data contained in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) by considering the whole production chain from cultivation of the feedstock up to use of the biofuels.

They used only publicly available and published data in their calculations, and provided detailed documentation of all data. They also used average values and assuming common conditions along the supply chain in their scenarios.

The RED, adopted in 2009, includes a 10% target for the use of renewable energy in road transport fuels by 2020. Renewable energy options for road transport included first- and second-generation biofuels and electricity. The RED also established environmental sustainability criteria for biofuels consumed in the EU: a minimum rate of direct GHG emission savings (35% in 2009 and rising over time to 50% in 2017) and restrictions on the types of land that may be converted to production of biofuels feedstock crops (direct land use changes only). (Earlier post.)

Rapeseed is by far the most important source of biodiesel produced in the European Union and has experienced dramatic growth rates since the introduction of various national support schemes, not least prompted by the RED. In this paper, we recalculate the GHG emissions saving potential of rapeseed biodiesel based on the background data provided by the EU and realistic assumptions and data from the rapeseed biodiesel production. We are using the same methodology used in a previous paper on palm oil biodiesel (Pehnelt and Vietze 2011) and adjust the background data and scenarios to the common conditions and supply chains of rapeseed biodiesel production in Europe.

Our results indicate that the ‘sustainability’ of rapeseed biodiesel in the interpretation of RED is at best very questionable, and in most scenarios simply unjustifiable. We are not able to reproduce the GHG emissions saving values published in RED for rapeseed biodiesel. In most of our scenarios, rapeseed biodiesel not only shows a considerably inferior GHG emissions saving performance than proposed by RED but also fails outright to reach the 35% threshold in 8 out of 12 scenarios considered. Thus, the question of whether rapeseed is a sustainable source of biodiesel can be answered as follows: as with all scientific assessment, it depends on the specific conditions and production technologies, but the overall evidence points towards answering the question in the negative. It is extremely likely that European rapeseed biodiesel does not, in fact, meet the current EU definition of sustainability.

—Pehnelt and Vietze (2012)

For all of their scenarios, they calculated the GHG emission saving potentials of refined rapeseed oil as an input in power plants (electricity production) as well as the GHG emissions saving potentials of rapeseed oil based biodiesel (FAME) according to RED and by using common esterification technologies. They thus presented three GHG emission saving values regarding the respective fossil fuel comparator:

  • Values for the GHG emission savings of rape oil used for electricity production;
  • values for the GHG emissions saving potential compared to the value of fossil diesel as stated by the EU-Directive (EU 2009); and
  • values for the GHG saving potential of rape biodiesel to current LCA of fossil fuel emissions.

In most of the scenarios, rapeseed biodiesel does not reach the GHG emissions saving values using the formula contained in RED. Neither the RED typical value for rapeseed oil (45%) nor even the lower default value (38%) can be supported by the analysis, they said. Furthermore, most of the scenarios indicate that rapeseed biodiesel does not reach the 35% threshold required by the EU Directive for being considered as sustainable biofuel.

In the standard scenario, they calculated a GHG emissions saving value of not even 30%—not only below the GHG emissions saving values (default and typical) that can be found in RED but also far below the 35% threshold.

The aim of our paper was to analyze the GHG emission saving values of rapeseed biodiesel (FAME) as stated by RED (EU 2009). For this purpose, we run a life cycle assessment (LCA) of rapeseed biodiesel using the same basic methodology and background data as RED. Unlike other studies, we utilize only publicly available and published data in our calculations. We follow the same rather conservative approach as in a previous study on palm oil (Pehnelt and Vietze 2011) in using average values and assuming common conditions along the production chain in most of our scenarios. However, in order to enable a broad comparison, we run also calculations with more superior assumptions regarding rapeseed diesel production (e.g. esterification) compared to the average values and pathways. Moreover, in all scenarios we compare the very GHG emissions with fossil fuel emissions according RED (EU 2009) as well as with higher fossil fuel emissions according Silva et al. (2006) and CONCAWE et al. (2006). The latter is more favorable regarding GHG emission savings of rapeseed diesel.

Nevertheless, in most cases we are unable to reach the GHG emissions saving values that can be found in the annex of RED. Neither the RED typical value for rapeseed oil (45%) nor even the less stringent default value (38%) can be approved by our analysis. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of calculations indicate that rapeseed biodiesel does not reach the 35% threshold required by the EU Directive.

—Pehnelt and Vietze



Kit P

Another example of perfect being the enemy of better. In the real world, people who produce energy are always trying to figure out how to do it better. People who produce reports like to explain what is wrong with better.

Of course the purpose of biofuels is to develop alternatives, get the cost down, and the level of production up if LCA shows it is better. The first is doing, the second step is doing it better.

Even if biofuels start at zero ghg reductions, it is still better.


Using food production land to produce feed stocks for bio-fuel to promote the use of inefficient gas guzzlers is not sustainable because it will put pressure on food price and many more of the 97% will go hungry. Of course the 3% would get more revenues and would increase their wealth another step or two. As the 97 uses a higher percentage of their diminishing income to buy food, they will get to be poorer and poorer. The vicious cycle will gain speed.

It is surprising that not too many of the 97% actually see what is being done to them. Their eyes and ears are still wide shut. It is amazing to see what one can make the majority believe with enough paid propaganda. Many would walk into the ocean for a few dollars if told to do so often enough.


The numbers in the RED were faked for the same reason that corn ethanol was promoted in the USA:  to get rid of farm surpluses.  Energy independence and GHG reduction were the avowed purpose, but had little or nothing to do with it in actuality.

Bob Wallace

Rapeseed (canola/Canadian oil in polite society) can be grown in between wheat crops. Doing that means no food production is given up and having a crop in the field rather than having it stand bare is better for the soil and reduces runoff.

Extra income for farmers, that's not a bad thing.


BW....those extra crops may soon be required to feed 10+ B people with warmer dryer climate and reduced production per hectare in many places.

Non food feed stocks and wastes could be used to produce fuels for a few million gas guzzlers but no where enough for a major portion of the current (close to one billion vehicles) world fleet.

Coal and NG/SG may be able to supply more liquid fuels for essential services for a few decades?

Kit P

Bob Wallace is correct. There is no reason that farmers in Eastern Washington State, Idaho, or Montana can not grow oil seed crops between dryland wheat crops to meet some of their fuel needs for their. It has been recently demonstrated. If fact it has been demonstrated for thousands of years. It used to take 4 hours of labor to buy one hour of light with lamp oil. Now it takes about 10 second for a minimum rage worker to purchase enough light for an hour from electricity. Biofuel for transportation is more expensive than fossil fuel but still affordable.

Naysayer in chief, Harvey, does not seem to grasp the concept that 40 years from now is not soon when it comes to yearly harvest. There will not be 10+ billion people on the planet if we can not feed them. Predictions made 40 years ago were wrong about our ability to feed 7 billion people while demonstrating our ability to produce about 10% biofuel for transportation.


Kit....there are good and bad decisions.

We have to learn to differentiate. Too many of us have unfortunately learned (or been forcibly convinced or brain washed) to believe that good decisions are restricted to highest profit making choices. It is not always so.

The list of very bad decisions is a mile long:

1. Using 240,000,000 gas guzzlers in USA is just one of many bad decisions.

2. Subsidizing fossil fuel at the rate of $1T/year is another one.

3. Selling our leaders-politicians to people with $$$$ is anti-democracy and a major crime.

4. Using high quality food stocks (corn, sugar etc) to produce fuel for inefficient gas guzzlers is a crime against humanity.

5. Making 46+% of people in USA obese for profits with chemicals and bad eat and living habits is criminal.

5. Produce GHG at the rate 20 to 25 tons/year per capita is criminal.

6. This could go on for pages.


I forgot a major one:

1. Fighting $10,000,000,000,000+ oil wars are extremely bad decisions and a major crime against humanity.


Speaking of oil the Iraqi Oil Ministry just a few days ago auctioned off oil contracts to foreign oil companies. No US oil producers or service providers won a single Iraqi contract. Ironic what!

There is no reason that farmers in Eastern Washington State, Idaho, or Montana can not grow oil seed crops between dryland wheat crops
Except there isn't enough soil moisture to raise a second crop; some farmers have to leave fields fallow every other year to allow enough water to accumulate to grow a crop of wheat.

The Twït doesn't understand what "dryland" means, it seems.

Kit P

“The Twït doesn't understand ..”

Really! Lived there for many including investigating increasing farm income by producing energy crops.

Tell me E-P do you every comment on something that you have experience with?


Again......increasing farm income to produce more liquid fuel even if it ruins the land and uses the water required to produce food.......what high caliber nonsense is this? One has to be deeply addicted to the all mighty dollar (at all cost) to propose that.

Clive Richardson

Clive Richardson

Whole crop Biorefinery close to the regional location for the agriculture changes the GHG emissions profiles while cycling the bio fuel TOMS back into the agriculture so that a reduction in fossil fuel use all round is achieved. This is part of our ideology while manufacturing TOMS saves GHG emissions anyhow. Also running the refinery on straws to get the energy to manufacture the TOMS and/or other products is ZERO emission profile. The researchers are correct but should state that the current manufacture of bio diesel is suspiciously uneconomic while the over all harvest to processing of OSR is not designed to reduce GHG emissions. In fact the over all set up that we can see with oil seed crop harvest and processing is uneconomic as it was not designed when renewable alternatives were a priority nor with any consideration for regional opportunities for direct benefit. That oil seeds are transported long distances before undergoing any benefications is totally unacceptable for multiple reasons.

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