Category Archives: Biofuels

Energiewende: Stoppt den Bioenergie-Wahnsinn

Kraftstoffe vom Acker können den Klimawandel nicht aufhalten. Sie verschärfen stattdessen das globale Hungerproblem, attestiert nun die Nationale Wissenschaftsakademie.” (Source: Die Zeit)

A comprehensive new study published by the German National Academy of Sciences concludes that "Germany should not focus on Bioenergy to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and GHG emissions". Germany’s Die Zeit has an excellent summary of this interesting "Bioenergy – chances and limits" study.

The study is available in German with an English executive summary.

One of the main conclusions: Germany “should insist that the EU 2020 target of 10 per cent renewable content in road fuel energy is revisited. Rather, Germany should concentrate on other renewable energy sources such as solar heat, photovoltaics, and wind energy, whose area demand, GHG emissions, or other environmental impacts are lower than those of bioenergy. Energy conservation and energy efficiency improvements should have priority.”

New Dutch report: Biodiesel worse for the environment than normal diesel

“Circuler avec du diesel normal ou de l’essence est moins néfaste pour l’environnement que circuler au biodiesel, selon une étude réalisée pour l’organisation environnementale Greenpeace, rapportée vendredi par le quotidien De Morgen.” (Source: RtBF-Belga)

The study was undertaken by Dutch research institute CE Delft at the request of Greenpeace and looked at the sustainability criteria for biofuels.

Read the full study “Biobrandstoffen benchmarken” (in Dutch only).

Biomass ‘insanity’ may threaten EU carbon targets

The EU’s emissions reduction target for 2020 could be facing an unlikely but grave obstacle, according to a growing number of scientists, EU officials and NGOs: the contribution of biomass to the EU’s renewable energy objectives for 2020.”

Interesting EurActiv article questioning the "carbon neutrality" of biomass and EU targets for renewable energy.

Algae: the next miracle solution?

Just like hydrogen a few years ago, algae –to-biodiesel is the new hype launched by venture capitalists who want to make quick and big bucks (see today’s EurActiv story and the interesting – although a bit unbalanced – dossier). EU policymakers should keep a good dose of realism and try to understand the technology and its cost and sustainability implications better before falling for the “algae is good for the environment and energy security” trap.

The fact that fossil fuel giants like Shell and Exxon are jumping on the bandwagon does not change that. They have enough money to make some mistakes if the big promises of the next miracle solution for future oil production  would not deliver. It only shows these companies are starting to acknowledge that the end of the (traditional) oil era is upon us and it is time to look into alternatives (mostly forgetting renewables like solar and wind).
I do believe algae might play a role in future sustainable energy policies but a lot more research is needed before policymakers should get over-enthusiastic about this next silver bullet.

Here are a few of the sceptical voices in the algae hype:

  • Geoffrey Stiles has some answers to the question: why does Exxon invest in algae on his Energy Outlook blog.
  • Robert Rapier’s “Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction” dates from 2007 but is still valuable and has good references to other sceptics.
  • The Oil Drum ran an excellent piece on “Cost viability and algae” in May 2009.
  • And, last but not least, there is the new (27 July)  LCA study published by a team of researchers in France in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The conclusions of this last study deserve some highlighting as they prove my previous point:

Biodiesel production from microalgae is an emerging technology considered by many as a very promising source of energy, mainly because of its reduced competition for land. However the impact assessment and the energy balance show that algal biodiesel suffers from several drawbacks at the current level of maturity of the technology. In comparison to conventional energetic crops, high photosynthetic yields of microalgae significantly reduce land and pesticide use but not fertilizer needs. Moreover, production, harvesting, and oil extraction induce high energy consumption, which can jeopardize the overall energetic balance. It appears that even if the algal biodiesel is not really environmentally competitive under current feasibility assumptions, there are several improvement tracks which could contribute to reduce most of its impacts.”

Sustainability alerts 16 July 2009

Sustainability alerts 15 July

Worth reading: new Stern report; Daly on steady-state economy; air travel; CCS; biofuels

A few pointers to some must-read reports or articles which I discovered in the last ten days:

  • Nicholas Stern’s latest report “Key elements of a global deal on climate change“: not much different from his 2006 Stern review for the UK government but rings the alarm bell a bit harder as very little has really changed since then; mentions the 80-90% reduction target again without being concrete about the implications on our way of life (see my earlier: “Welcome to brave new world“);
  • Herman Daly’s recent “Steady-State Economy” presentation to the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission: I do not like the term “steady-state” (it will be hard to convince decision-makers to back a concept which reminds them of immobility and state control, although it has nothing to do with both), but Daly still remains one of the greatest thinkers about how to put humanity back on a sustainability path. When will the Commission have the courage to invite him to one of its Green Week or Sustainable Energy week sessions?
  • For all of us who think about offsetting their air travel, the Stockholm Environment Institute has done an excellent job reviewing different emissions calculators and offsetting schemes and concluded that they still need a lot of improvement. Read their report “Carbon offsetting and air travel“.
  • Greenpeace published a new report questioning the latest “silver bullet”: carbon capture and storage. The report “False hope” is a must-read contribution to a difficult debate which will be in the spotlight during some conferences in Brussels in the next few months. So, if you want to contribute, make sure you get your ammunition :)
  • Last but not least,  another hot topic on the current climate/energy agenda: the sustainability criteria for biofuels. This debate on how best to implement bio-energy standards should be broadened and develop into an “international standard-setting scheme for a sustainable use of natural resources” according to a brilliant paper by Ecologic’s Timo Kaphengst and Stephanie Schlegel.

Transatlantic conference hears bleak evaluation of EU climate policies

This blog was very silent last week because I was in Washington DC participating in a fascinating two-day climate and energy conference organised by the Transatlantic Platform for Action on the Global Environment (T-PAGE). This dialogue forum was created to facilitate debate among members of EU and US civil society on climate and energy policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The conference focused in a first-day expert workshop on the question how to reduce emissions from the transport sector and on the controversial US and EU biofuels policies. On the second day, a public event highlighted the lessons drawn from the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) and US Congress plans for a similar cap-and-trade system and looked at public perceptions in the US and the EU about the global warming challenge.

Overall, the European participants painted a less rosy picture than EU institutions want to make believe. Not only was there the growing disappointment with the global effects of biofuels policies (one of the EU’s own environmental institutions now pleads for suspending the 10% target), but the evaluation of Europe’s climate flagship, the emissions trading scheme or ETS, was also rather bleak. It is obvious that up to now the ETS has not lived up to its expectations. Very few real technological investments as a result of pricing CO2 have taken place and the only ones who seem to have won from ETS are the financial traders (who therefore write very positive reports about ETS). It is doubtful whether the Commission’s new proposals will turn things around. Not only has the energy-intensive industry hijacked the debate with its “carbon leakage” panic but even the better parts of the Commission’s ETS review drew heavy fire at the conference. “When Europe’s power producers (who have made big windfall profits in the first phase of ETS) applaud the auctioning proposals of the new Commission package, you have to smell a rat” was the justified and smart observation of an ex-Commission official.

The US participants (mainly from environmental groups, academics and one representative of the Californian lawmakers) were quite optimistic that the wind in the US is changing and that a future administration will endorse stricter global warming targets. One of the doubts raised was whether this will happen fast enough so as to influence the outcome of the Copenhagen climate top of 2009. I also have my own personal doubts in case of a surprise win of John McCain in November. Will the US senator, when President, be able to turn his climate-sceptical party around or will he water down his own positions?

US as well as EU particpants agreed that we need to move to more sustainable transport modes but there was a lot of confusion in the debate on what would be the right approach (some went for CNG, others underlined the need for a breakthrough in electrification technologies, others again highlighted the need for serious transport demand reduction).

On biofuels, the general feeling was that it is time to “take the foot of the accelerator” and “rethink” our biofuels policies in view of rising food prices as well as negative effects on land use and the direct and indirect repercussions for the environment and global warming.

That said, the conference confirmed to me once more that our exclusive focus on climate change makes us lose sight of the bigger sustainability challenge. Climate change is just one symptom of a bigger system crisis with lots of other dimensions (peak oil, gas and coal, high commodity prices, water shortages, biodiversity loss, population growth). Policymakers’ overemphasis on one dimension of this sustainability crisis might lead to effects which aggravate the other crises (see the link between biofuels, population and high oil prices on the one hand and the new hunger issue on the other). If policymakers do not connect the dots and see climate change as part of this huge overarching sustainability challenge, chances are that we will just sink deeper and deeper into the mud as exemplified by the flight into coal and tar sands as a result of the growing energy crunch. It is time to develop a transatlantic and global agenda on sustainability and create the governance structures needed for this system transformation.

Second-generation biofuels: really better?

Now that the EU’s policies on first-generation biofuels is getting more and more headwind, the biofuels advocates in Brussels (and globally) are holding a plea for quicker research and development of cellulosic or second-generation biofuels. In the impact assessment of its 23 January 2008 climate/energy package, the Commission foresees a 30% share of these new biofuels by 2020.

Cellulosic biofuels are made from non-food crops or waste products such as straw, grasses or wood left-overs (see Wikipedia on cellulosic ethanol).

There are several problems with cellulosic biofuels though. First of all, according to most experts, full commercial production is still ten years off. More fundamentally, a lot of the so-called waste products to be used for cellulosic biofuels are no waste. Nature does not know waste. What we call waste, are in reality nutrients for ecosystems and soils. Removing these waste products could actually lead to soil problems later.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to get more and better information on these second-generation biofuels.

The University of Berkely has this great YouTube video on cellulosic biofuels.

Further reading:

Energy and special interests

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Martin Wolf is without any doubt one of the best European economic journalists of his time, although I do not always agree with his neo-liberal “let’s leave everything to the market” politics.

Today, the FT columnist launches a brilliant attack on the political support and subsidies for biofuels which he sees driven by “well-organised special interests“.

Wolf calls these subsidies “farm programmes masquerading as answers to energy insecurity and climate change“. He uses the recent Global Subsidies study of the International Institute for Sustainable Development to illustrate the foolishness of these very costly policies (see on this also my blog post from 4 October).

Wolf also rebuffs the five “rationalisations” that are used to justify the biofuels subsidies:

  • these subsidies reduce farm support payments
  • they lower petrol prices
  • they reduce reliance on risky fossil fuels
  • they are an efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • they are only needed to establish the infrastructure.

This is then Wolf’s diagnosis which I can indeed agree with, but then the FT journalist moves on to the question “what to do?”

First the “negative” solutions: “eliminate increasingly popular (because apparently costless) mandates to use specific quantities of biofuels, since these shift all the risk of fluctuations in demand and supply of foodstuffs on to their use as food; discipline the stacking of subsidies on one another; and eliminate all open-ended supports for production before these become impossible to reverse“. No problem with most of those recommendation again, although I think a moratorium on first-generation biofuels might be easier.

Then Wolf’s “positive” ideas: “define the objectives and instruments of policy precisely, in terms of the overall goals of energy security and reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases; create a single global price of carbon that governs all activities; make producers compete for any support that is offered; let the markets decide on sale of flexible-fuel vehicles (and indeed the energy efficiency of vehicles); and, above all, move to free trade in biofuels”.

A lot here again with which I have no problems except for the “markets” bit. First of all, as the Stern report has clearly stated: “climate change [and I am so free to add energy insecurity] is the biggest market failure of our time”. Secondly, none of our energy sources has and can do without government support. If nuclear would not have had very generous subsidies in the past (and the present) we would not even have the debate on an energy renaissance. So the issue is not the subsidies, the problem is the special interests and their lobbying power! That being said, subsidies should be carefully considered, democratically decided and should not only follow an economic rationale but on sustainability rationale.


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