Researchers: Biofuel fails EU sustainability test

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It looks like the contentious debate over biofuels is poised to flare up again…

German researchers claim to have found evidence that European-produced biodiesel does not meet the sustainability targets claimed by Brussels.

Gernot Pehnelt and Christoph Vietze are experts at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. They say eight out of their 10 tests on locally produced rapeseed biodiesel failed to show the 35% greenhouse gas savings promised. In most cases it was under 30%. The use of biofuels would be further undermined when the EU emissions target increases, as planned, to 50% in five years time.

Pehnelt spoke to The Guardian newspaper. He was quoted as saying, “Our results indicate that the ‘sustainability’ of rapeseed biodiesel in the interpretation of the [EU’s] renewable energy directive is at best questionable and in most scenarios simply unjustifiable. What we need is transparency. The European commission hesitates to publish all the background data and promises to come up with new calculations for individual biofuels but they have not come up with any values yet.”

The biofuels debate is known as the argument of ‘Food vs. Fuel’. This is a dilemma that argues the risk of diverting crops for biofuels production, ultimately pushing up food prices on a global scale.

The UN accuses biofuels of not only raising food prices — but also aggravating the most severe drought in the U.S. in half a century. U.S. legislators called on the environmental protection agency this month to waive its ethanol mandate. It currently requires that 40% of the American corn crop is turned into biodiesel. The U.S. department of agriculture said the corn yield would be the lowest for 17 years. This raises grain prices because it means there will be more demand for wheat to be used as animal feed.

José Graziano da Silva is director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the United Nations. He has said he wants to see a halt in US government-backed production of corn-based ethanol, which is mixed with petrol to make “greener” fuel. This comes amid fears the world is heading for another food crisis like the one in 2008 that triggered riots around the world.

The EU’s reported lack of transparency on biofuels has already been challenged by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Client Earth. The German academics told The Guardian that problems play into the hands of those who believe Brussels is deliberately overstating the benefits of local rapeseed for political reasons.

Germany, France and Italy are the EU’s biggest producers of rapeseed oil. These countries are also home to a car manufacturing industry that actively supports the use of biodiesel for reducing carbon emissions.

Three years ago, Europe introduced its renewable energy directive. It demands that greenhouse gas emissions from production and use of biofuels for transport must be at least 35% lower than those from fossil fuels. In 2017, that marker will rise to 50%.

Reports say Brussels is now under pressure to come up with the investment and technology needed to move to a new source for biodiesel. This new feedstock could come in the form of weeds and waste stems, which would take the pressure off global grain supplies for food.

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