What is the proposed NZ Biofuels Obligation?
The new legislation will legally require NZ fuel suppliers to add biofuel to petrol and diesel used to power cars and trucks.
When is it set to become law?
The legislation is being drafted right now and the government intends for it to take effect on 1 April, 2023.
Why is Don’t Burn our Future opposed to the NZ Biofuels Obligation?
Most people’s first reaction to hearing the word ‘biofuels’ is something like “it sounds like it might be good for the environment”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
New Zealand doesn’t have enough of the right kind of waste (essentially edible material from food production like tallow, used cooking oils and whey) to make the amount of biofuel needed to meet the mandate. This means we would have to import biofuels from global suppliers. However, they don’t have enough of the right waste either. The likely biofuels would be ethanol (for petrol) and Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil or various vegetable oils (for diesel), produced specifically for that purpose.
What’s so bad about that?
The extra demand for food crops to make biofuel is driving tropical deforestation in these countries. Over the past 30 years, around 19 million hectares of mostly virgin rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia has been cleared for palm oil plantations. This results in the loss of natural habitats and displacement of indigenous people, as well as actually increasing emissions and driving higher food and fuel costs.
Incentives for biofuel production also encourage farmers to switch from growing crops for human consumption to growing them to make biofuel, or for land such as tropical landforest to be cleared to grow biofuel crops.
In North America 40% of the annual corn crop goes into ethanol biofuel rather than food. In Europe and China huge volumes of edible vegetable oils are similarly diverted. Further ‘waste’ crops for biofuels are now being grown for the European market, on land which could be used for edible crops.
Clearing land such as rainforest creates massive emissions from the loss of old-growth trees, disturbed soils and drained peatlands, and combined with the emissions from all the other activities associated with producing crops (fertilising, harvesting, and transporting) are added in, most biofuels emit more CO2 than the fossil fuel they replace, making them worse than useless as a solution to climate change.
But isn’t this only a problem for the countries where this is happening?
No. As a global citizen, Aotearoa New Zealand cannot turn a blind eye to the unacceptable environmental and social costs of producing unsustainable biofuels just because it’s not happening within our borders. The proposed biofuels law would create additional global demand for biofuels and therefore create more greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable land use and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter in what part of the world that these emissions occur, the effect on the climate is the same.
If the NZ Biofuels Obligation is so unworkable, how come it has got this far?
Beats us! The government’s own analysis lists all the potentially negative impacts, including how the planned policy would drive up costs for the most vulnerable New Zealanders. It acknowledges we don’t have the volumes of waste material to make ‘sustainable’ biofuels from, using presently available technology. It says New Zealand will need to import biofuel made from food crops to meet the required volumes. And yet the Government is still pressing ahead.
But other countries have biofuel mandates?
Biofuel mandates in the US and Europe have caused untold havoc and misery. Since 2011, the added demand for land to grow crops to satisfy the EU’s legal requirements for biodiesel, has destroyed forests the size of the Netherlands, destroyed 10% of remaining orangutan habitat, displaced indigenous people from their homes and destroyed their livelihoods and increased global emissions massively compared to if they had done nothing.
Europeans are trying to shift from food-based to waste-based biofuels – mainly sourced from China – but available volumes are too small and there are concerns over false certification by suppliers. Today, around 40 percent of the US corn crop goes into making biofuel. Government subsidies incentivise growers to divert from food to ethanol production. This has created global corn shortages and soaring prices, exacerbated further by the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted global grain supplies.
What or who is driving this proposed policy?
The national Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) has a target of ‘reducing the emission intensity of fuel by 10% by 2030’, ostensibly by blending in ‘sustainable’ biofuel with regular fuel.
The Climate Change Commission is pushing the mandate, believing biofuels will reduce short term emissions, pending more significant initiatives. The Biofuels Obligation cabinet paper, presented to the Cabinet Environment, Energy and Climate Committee in October 2021 outlines all the negative impacts the mandate could have and acknowledges that New Zealand will have to import biofuels to satisfy it. But the Cabinet signed it off, insisting that only sustainable biofuels are used even though they don’t exist in anything like sufficient quantities!
I heard Z has given up on making biofuel from tallow in New Zealand. What does this mean?
Tallow is the one significant source of waste in New Zealand that can easily be made into biofuel but there is not nearly enough to meet the volumes that the government is proposing. All our tallow is currently being exported to Singapore to make biofuel already so there would be minimal climate benefit from relocating this processing to New Zealand. However Z, who built a small pilot plant in Wiri, South Auckland has given up on the idea anyway, because they can’t outbid offshore buyers to obtain the tallow. This means that Z, and all other fuel suppliers will need to import biofuel at elevated prices to meet the proposed mandate. They won’t be able to source truly sustainable biofuel this way so will be forced to import supplies that have been produced at the expense of the environment, creating more of the terrible consequences detailed above.
But in the midst of a climate crisis, surely New Zealand has to do something to reduce carbon emissions and reliance and fossil fuels?
We believe the time and money that would be spent on implementing a biofuels mandate would be better spent on climate solutions that are actually proven to work and have a positive impact now. These include wind and solar power, more active personal transport choices, better public transport within and between our cities and towns, electric vehicles, investment in rail and conservation measures.
Why can’t we use wood waste from our pine plantations (pine slash) to make biofuels?
Just as trees take a long time to break down in the forest, wood-based liquid biofuel is very difficult to make. To date, despite huge amounts of money being poured into research and development, there are no commercially available processes to convert wood or other cellulosic material like stalks and husks to liquid fuels and none appear likely over the next decade or so. The opinion of consultants tasked with examining the future of the NZ wood fibres industry found production of wood pellet fuel from this waste had far better potential to cut emissions and be commercially viable for the private sector.
Aren’t there new technologies looking at converting wood waste into liquid fuel?
Wood digestion needs temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius. The slash would need to be gathered, heated/processed and transported somewhere to be used. Once all those steps are added up, the overall process would be very complex and expensive. Analysis by those same consultants mentioned above found that the investment would have a negative rate of return – that is, it makes no financial sense at all. That’s why there are no commercial wood-waste to biofuel operations anywhere in the world. Possibly governments could invest directly or offer huge incentives to make it happen anyway, but even then it would take at least five years, probably longer, for any fuel to be produced.
Either way, a biofuels mandate encourages fuel suppliers to meet the requirements at the lowest possible cost to remain competitive, so there is no way it would spur the creation of a hugely expensive and risky wood-waste-to-biofuel industry, as demonstrated by the experience overseas.
What is pine slash?
Pine forests in New Zealand are grown for the logs. The side branches, stumps and roots are collectively called pine slash. Pine slash is not saleable so is discarded, usually just pushed to the side of the pine plantation to make way for replanting with new seedlings. Eventually it rots, returning the carbon stored in it to the atmosphere. Burning it as fuel just speeds up this process.
What about solid wood fuel and ‘biogas’ from landfills and treatment plants – are they bad?
Generally speaking no: firewood, wood chips and wood pellets (aka ‘biomass’) produced within NZ, and gas from landfills, sewage treatment and enclosed food waste digestors (aka ‘biogas’) are carbon-neutral fuels, and are legitimately classed as renewable energy. Our concerns relate to liquid biofuels, and the government’s proposed mandate for them.
How do biofuels compare with solar energy?
Plants are the right way to make food, but are simply not very good at converting sunlight into energy to power transport.
Diesel cars running pure palm oil convert just 0.09% of sunlight energy to movement. Ethanol-in-petrol efficiencies are similar. In contrast, solar panels running electric cars convert around 7% of the sun’s energy falling on them into useful movement. Therefore, solar panels need less land: up to 7/0.09 = 77 times less. At the same time, the space underneath the solar panels is useful for growing crops and sheltering livestock.
There is no fix for this inefficiency. Plants will never be a good way to make energy, and growing energy will never become an efficient use of land. We grow crops to get energy for our bodies in the form of food as there is no other way; we can’t plug ourselves in to recharge like a smartphone, or drink petrol without getting horribly ill. But that is not the case for cars, trucks, ships or planes!
Who is the Don’t Burn Our Future movement?
We are a group of concerned New Zealanders pushing for the NZ government to drop the proposed biofuels obligation before it’s too late. We will be doing our best to get this issue front and centre with politicians and the New Zealand public, as it has flown almost completely under their radar so far.
What other organisations are opposing this policy?
What can I do to support the campaign?