Support for biofuels should end, says OECD

Policies supporting the adoption of biofuels should be phased out, according to a paper by the OECD. Certification schemes “cannot be trusted” to safeguard the environment, it maintains.

Governments should not create new mandates for biofuels and should phase out existing policies supporting them, according to a ministerial discussion paper drafted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.1Biofuel targets should be replaced with technology-neutral policies such as a carbon taxes, it says. At the very least, “domestic policy efforts should be redirected from… the deployment of biofuels in general” to research into second-generation biofuels.

Second-generation biofuels are made from cellulose-rich feedstocks like wood and are better for the environment than conventional biofuels (ENDS Report 382, pp 26-29 ). The paper recommends further research even though “it remains to be seen whether they will become economically viable”.

The paper was commissioned for the OECD’s roundtable on sustainable development, which met to discuss biofuels in September. It is the first high-level report to question the wisdom of biofuel policies rather than simply their environmental benefits.

Following the meeting, Brice Lalonde, the roundtable’s chairman, said he hoped to be given a remit to investigate biofuels further.

The paper’s conclusions are based on an assessment of biofuels’ economic, social and environmental impacts. Biofuels’ potential to replace fossil fuels without compromising food prices and the environment “is very limited”, it says.

Food prices are already being affected by the growth in biofuels, it says. While land-use constraints will mean this “food-versus-fuel” debate can only become more acute.

Biofuels typically deliver savings in greenhouse gases of about 40% compared with petrol and diesel. But when fertiliser use, soil acidification and biodiversity loss are considered, their overall environmental impact “can easily exceed” that of fossil fuels, it says. Several recent scientific studies have echoed this statement (see pp 28-29  ).

Certification systems have been proposed to overcome these problems – most notably in the UK, with the renewable transport fuels obligation, and the Netherlands (ENDS Report 390, pp 40-41 ).

However, these systems “cannot be trusted as a safeguard”. Enforcement of certification schemes and chain-of-custody controls could prove to be “an enormous challenge,” the paper says. It cites the difficulties encountered in trying to ensure sustainable timber production.

Moreover, biofuel policies are setting ambitious targets with no guarantee they can be achieved sustainably. “There is a serious risk that biofuel quotas for demand are higher than potential sustainable supply, creating a strong incentive to ‘cheat’ in the system,” the paper says.

Another risk noted is that certification schemes will be challenged in the World Trade Organization.

The only policy the paper deems “appropriate” is the EU’s proposed target for biofuels to make up 10% of fuel supply by 2020 (ENDS Report 388, p 44 ).

However, this wins praise not for the target itself, but the fact it is subject to “production being sustainable” and second-generation biofuels becoming “commercially viable”.

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