It's not seldom that Jan Henke finds himself on a jet cruising at 10,000 meters above the Atlantic Ocean on yet another trip from Germany to Brazil. Or to Argentina. Sometimes he heads the other way to Malaysia or Indonesia. But once he arrives, his procedure is generally the same. He doesn't waste much time taking in the sights or hanging out in the cities. Rather, Henke heads out into the countryside to tromp through the mud in yet another isolated field on a farm far away from Europe.
Henke is a senior consultant with International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC). Since February, his group has been running a pilot program for the German Energy Agency to find out just how farmers around the world raise their crops. Particularly, Henke is interested in those plantations that grow crops like sugar cane, African palms and even corn. And, if the crop can be processed into fuel for European gas tanks, Henke wants to see how it is raised so his organization can create rules that ensure the methods used are environmentally sustainable.
"We are creating a checklist, and then going from plantation to plantation to see if they are fulfilling these criteria. The idea is to see what can actually be done in practice to see if you can control these things," Henke told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "You don't want to reinvent the wheel, but you want to see if these criteria fulfil what is being asked for on the European market."
And yet, the project Henke is working on is very much akin to reinventing the wheel. Just a little over one year after the European Union established concrete targets requiring all fuel sold in the 27-member bloc to contain a 10 percent mixture of biofuel by the year 2020 -- with an interim target of 5.75 percent by 2010 -- the idea of making gas and diesel from plants is under attack. Some say the savings on CO2 emissions relative to fossil fuels isn't nearly enough. Others point out that, having rapidly developed into a massive market, farmers in the tropics are mowing down rain forests and draining peat bogs -- and releasing massive amounts of CO2 in the process -- to get in on some of the biofuels action. Still others say that mass planting of biofuels crops means less land is available for growing edible crops, thus driving up food prices.
'Biofuels Are Going Ahead With or Without Us'
But there may be a way around these substantial roadblocks on the biofuels highway. What if one could guarantee that all biofuels that found their way into European gas tanks were socially and environmentally kosher and really did result in a reduction of CO2 emissions?
The idea is not brand new. The United Kingdom has been working on such a sustainability scheme since 2005 as part of its law mandating biofuels use. The Netherlands has also been developing a program. Henke, for his part, works on a specifically German project.
This fall, though, the European Union is intensifying efforts to create a system of its own. For the last seven months, a European Commission working group has been busily designing a possible system. The European Parliament has also worked out its own concept, which was passed out of the parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy last Thursday and which envisages no more than 6 percent of transport fuel would come from grain-based biofuels. The remaining 4 percent of the target should be met with electricity and hydrogen from renewable sources or from so-called " second generation" biofuels. Soon, the two bodies will sit down to match up their respective plans and come up with a finalized blueprint. According to those involved in the process, France, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is pushing hard for an agreement by the time its term at the top runs out in December.
"There has been a very difficult debate," a high-ranking expert close to the European Commission negotiations told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "You have to have a sustainability scheme. We've said that since 2005. People recognize that biofuels are going ahead with or without us."
Indeed, the fact that biofuels are going ahead, with production continuing to grow explosively, is a significant part of the problem The European Union first set targets for biofuels use way back in 2003 as a way to reduce the bloc's emissions of greenhouse gases -- particularly CO2. Around one third of CO2 emissions come from cars and trucks, and biofuels seemed a promising way to decrease reliance on dirty fossil fuels.
Europe wasn't alone. In recent years, Washington has been throwing money at anyone who would build a factory to transform corn or other grains into bioethanol. Brazil had long been meeting a significant portion of its fuel needs with sugar cane. Germany quickly became the world leader in the production of biodiesel, a fuel produced by processing oil saturated crops such as rapeseed (canola) and African palm. Biofuels, thought many -- including environmental groups -- could very well save the world.
In the last two years, however, the report cards on biofuels have been coming in, and they haven't made for pleasant reading:
- A December 2007 report produced jointly by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Transport Forum found that corn-based ethanol produced in the US may only result in a 10- percent reduction in CO2 emissions as compared with normal gasoline.
- In May, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C. estimated that up to 30 percent of recent dramatic rise in food prices has come as a result of increased demand for agricultural commodities and field space created by biofuels.
- Many reports have described how the biofuel boom has resulted in rain forests being cut down and peat bogs being drained in the tropics, both valuable for their ability to store carbon as well as for biodiversity reasons.
- A new OECD report released in July came to the conclusion that, were the EU, the US and Canada to continue promoting biofuels as they are now, greenhouse gas emissions on our roads in 2015 would be just 0.8 percent less than they would be without state support -- subsidies that will amount to $25 billion in the year 2015.
"There are numerous more efficient methods to protect our climate than supporting the production of biofuels," Stefan Tangermann, OECD's director for trade and agriculture, said in a statement delivered upon the report's presentation. "Europe and North American got into this boat together. Now, together, they should get back out."
Within the European Union, there is also growing skepticism. Scientists at the European Environment Agency, which advises the EU on its biofuels policies, have withdrawn their support and the European Parliament also has its doubts. Claude Turmes, an EU parliamentarian for Luxembourg's Green Party and largely responsible for developing the European Parliament's biofuels sustainability plan, would like to see the Commission back away from the targets that have been set. It was Turmes who drafted the report backed by the parliamentary committee on Thursday which marks a shift away from crop-based biofuels. He recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he would like to get rid of the 10 percent biofuels target for 2020, and is pushing instead for a goal of just 4 percent.
"My preference is zero," Turmes said in a telephone interview. "Policy makers cannot close their eyes in front of the facts. The European Parliament is increasingly skeptical of biofuels."
But Turmes is doing what he can to help establish rules to ensure that those biofuels that do make it to the European market are worth the trouble. Any sustainability plan, he and his colleagues in the parliament argue, needs to mandate greenhouse gas savings greater than the 30 percent that has been proposed. Turmes would like to see savings of 45 to 50 percent mandated immediately -- with a target of 70 to 80 percent savings by 2015.
Achieving such high savings targets, though, is a challenge. Calculating the amount of CO2 emissions saved by biofuels takes the entire production chain into account. If, for example, a crop is raised with the help of nitrous-oxide based fertilizers (nitrous-oxide is hundreds of times more harmful to the climate than CO2) and is processed in a factory powered by a coal-fired power plant, the CO2 savings would be minimal to non-existent. And the technology to leap those and other hurdles is expensive. The 2007 report by the OECD and International Transport Forum, points out that government biofuels subsidies aimed at boosting output (like those in place in the US) or, by extension, those mandating a minimum mixture requirements -- known as admixture -- (like those in the EU) could encourage cheaper shortcuts, thus promoting relatively dirty biofuels.
Where crops are grown is also important. The European Union's admixture requirement has set off nothing short of a worldwide gold rush. African palm plantations and sugar cane fields are springing up in countries from Colombia to Vietnam as farmers rush to cash in -- and many of the fields that are now growing biofuels crops were carved out of the rain forest, the trees simply burned. Other fields, particularly in Indonesia, come from areas where peat bogs were drained. Both procedures release vast quantities of stored CO2 while at the same time destroying a valuable "carbon sink" -- areas that are naturally able to suck CO2 out of our atmosphere.
Creating a Monitoring System
The EU's plan would include a cut-off date -- currently, the year under consideration is 2005. Fields carved out of rainforests or peat bogs after that date would not get the European Union seal of approval whereas those established before that year would be grandfathered into the program. It would also include social criteria to make sure that child labor isn't used and that other European social norms are respected.
"The question then is: where was the crop made? It is then the farmer who puts a label on this thing saying where it comes from with latitude and longitude and the like," said the expert involved in the Commission discussions, who asked not to be identified because the policy is still under development. "There is obviously some incentive to cheat, but the idea is to know where the crop is coming from."
In short, the idea is to create a system whereby, when a shipment of biofuel or biofuel crops arrives in the European Union from the tropics -- crops grown in tropical areas are four to six times more productive than those grown in temperate regions -- the EU knows that using that fuel is helping to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Such monitoring systems already exist for other products. Timber products, soy oil and palm oil are all checked for sustainability. Indeed, many argue that, in an era of growing global population, rising food prices and increased pressure on agricultural lands, a plan encompassing all agricultural products -- including edibles such as potatoes, classic biofuel crops like rapeseed, and those crops that are in demand for both, such as corn -- is badly needed.
There has been some success, but enforcement remains an issue. It is impracticable for the European Union to send out an army of enforcers to make sure that a tiny palm oil plantation outside of Mompox, Colombia isn't using exhaust belching tractors and vast quantities of harmful fertilizer, thus eliminating any CO2 emissions reduction benefits.
A problem known as leakage, though, is a much greater issue. If a farmer elects to switch from planting lettuce in his fields to raising sugar cane for ethanol production, his field could easily be granted EU certification. But what if that farmer elects to keep growing lettuce, and decides to chop a field out of the neighboring rain forest to do so? Furthermore, by elevating demand, prices for biofuels are raised all over the world, meaning a biofuels producer could make a tidy profit selling his uncertified product to a country that doesn't care where it comes from.
"Tackling these issues within a certification scheme is not that easy and probably requires a global solution," says Jan Henke, the expert doing research for the German Energy Agency. "But even if you were to stop biofuels, agricultural demands are increasing anyway. A system to control this expansion is needed, not just for biofuels but for other reasons as well."
Some in the EU, like parliamentarian Turmes, have reached the conclusion that backing away from so-called "first generation biofuels" -- those which compete directly with food production for land and crops -- is the only solution and Thursday's decision shows that he has managed to persuade his fellow MEPS to move in that direction. New technologies focus on producing biofuels using all manner of biodegradable waste, logging leftovers, the stalks of corn plants after harvest and other plants that can grow where food crops cannot.
These "second generation biofuels," though, are still years away from making a significant impact. And in the mean time, unless the European Union completely turns its back on biofuels, implementing a sustainability regime remains the only game in town. And in an atmosphere of growing criticism of biofuels, many say that's all it is -- a game.
"It's just not going to work," says Adrian Bebb, an analyst with the environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth and editor of a recent report entitled "Sustainability as a Smokescreen." "Many realize this has been a mistake -- and its a mistake that has huge consequences. The EU simply cannot sit back and act like everything is OK. Certification is a fig leaf -- making it seem as if everything is fine. When it most certainly is not."