By Jake Roos, BSc (Hons), MAppSc Energy Management
11 July 2022
Wouldn’t it be great if wishes came true, and all your problems just went away? If all you needed to do is ask for something and it materialised out of thin air before you? Of course it would, but the world doesn’t work like that. But it seems the NZ Government is in the thrall of such magical thinking when it comes to ‘sustainable’ biofuels.
Biofuels directives, mandates or obligations (whatever you want to call them) require fuel suppliers to blend in a percentage of biofuel in with the fuel they supply, or else face fines and other enforcement action. Fuel suppliers wouldn’t do this otherwise because biofuels’ costs are always higher than the cost of fossil fuels. Why? Because biofuels are mostly made from food crops or their residues. Eating is more important than driving and fossil fuels are required to plant, fertilise, harvest, process and deliver these crops. If the price of fuel goes up, so does the price of food. Like a dog chasing its tail, it can never catch up, as decades of biofuels obligations overseas have demonstrated. So why do governments put biofuels obligations in place? One reason is the misplaced hope that they would lower greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy security.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and what might have been well-meaning biofuels directives in the US and Europe have caused untold havoc and misery around the world. It is estimated that since 2011, the added demand for land to grow crops to satisfy the EU’s legal requirements for biodiesel resulted in tropical deforestation of an area greater than the Netherlands, the destruction of 10% of the remaining global orangutan habitat and greenhouse gas emissions of 381 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, three times higher than if they had simply used fossil fuels. Read that again – that’s 254 million tonnes more emissions compared to if they had done nothing.
The New Zealand Government knows this. EECA commissioned a report and even produced a helpful infographic about it. And yet biofuels feature in the national Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP). It has a target of ‘reducing the emission intensity of fuel by 10% by 2030’, ostensibly by blending in ‘sustainable’ biofuel with regular fuel.
Let’s be clear here: sustainable biofuels don’t exist in any kind of useful quantities. All large volumes of biofuel today are made from food crops. “Waste” crops now being promoted to replace them are replacing food growth on arable land, and are often themselves still food for animals. So called ‘second generation’ biofuels made from inedible material like wood have never been commercialised. To do so would require massive investment in industrial plant using new technology right next door to large commercial forest catchments, and government estimates show the cost of the fuel produced would be two to four times more expensive per litre than first generation biofuels. A directive for this kind of biofuel would not spur fuel suppliers to make these kinds of investments – certainly the EU biofuels directive has not. It’s much easier and cheaper for them to lobby to have the sustainability requirements watered down.
The biofuels obligation cabinet paper presented to the Cabinet Environment, Energy and Climate Committee on 28 October 2021 briefly outlines all the terrible impacts on biodiversity, climate and food and fuel prices they could or would have. It says that NZ will need to import all the biofuel to satisfy the mandate and that strict (read: ‘adequate’) sustainability criteria ‘could limit availability’ of the required volumes, so unsustainable biofuel made from fuel and feed will needed to make the obligation work at all. It says that the policy will not be enough to create domestic supply of biofuels. It also says it will adversely impact low income NZers, Maori and Pacifica people and rural communities by raising the cost of fuel (to say nothing of the cost of food). Sounds great, doesn’t it?
To be clear, it’s really not – it’s a recipe for failure and disaster. Cabinet signed off on it, insisting that only the most sustainable biofuel be used, in defiance of its non-existence. It is now playing a game of chicken with reality, and reality doesn’t blink. Will it realise its mistake and drop the policy, or will it simply lower its standards, settling for sawdust instead of fairy dust, and hope that everyone will buy the greenwash?
Our group Don’t Burn Our Future is pushing for the former option – we want the NZ government to drop their proposed biofuels obligation before it’s too late – the planned implementation date (after which biofuel will find its way into all our fuel tanks) is 1 April 2023. The required legislation is being drafted right now. 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. Please get more informed about biofuels and help us spread our message. You can follow campaign updates and contact us on our Facebook page. We have also started a petition, which you can sign here.
– there effectively is no sustainable biofuel available now or in the foreseeable future,
– introducing a directive for it won’t miraculously create a supply of it,
– the risk of us paying more at the pump only to wreck the climate, damage biodiversity and drive up the cost of food is very high if an obligation is introduced.
– if you need any evidence, just look at what 40 years of biofuels mandates in the US and 12 years in the EU has achieved: nothing good.
– the money and resources that implementing a biofuels mandate would require would be better spent on almost anything else, but especially on climate solutions that are actually proven to work.
About the author
Jake Roos is a self-employed climate change consultant who lives on the Kāpiti Coast, north of Wellington in New Zealand. He has worked in the field for over 20 years, specialising in emissions reduction strategies, policies and plans for organisations, with a focus on local government. He has a BSc Hons and MAppSc with Distinction in Energy Management from the University of Otago. Jake lived and worked in the United Kingdom from 2004 – 2010 and during that time became aware of the issues with biofuels. He is chairperson of climate action advocacy group Low Carbon Kāpiti. For more about Jake see www.jakeroosconsulting.co.nz
Here is the cabinet paper:
Some important points from it:
- Para 8 and 41 says there should be strict sustainability criteria for biofuel feedstocks but
- Para 9 and 42 say that if these criteria are too strict it will limit the availability of supply
- Para 9 also says all the biofuel will be imported to being with
- Para 44 – 46 explain how biofuels can increase emissions
- Para 47 says excluding food and feed based feedstocks from its obligation is the best way to avoid it increasing emissions but 48 says NZ will not be able to obtain biofuels in sufficient quantities if it does this.
- Para 50 – legislation will work out ‘the threshold of the amount of biofuel allowed to be supplied from food and feed’
- Para 65 Proposed target: 3.5% of our fuel to be biofuel by 2025,
- Para 69 ‘ international prices for advanced biofuels (e.g. wood based) expected to be 2–4 times higher than petroleum-based equivalents‘
- Para 70 – initially conventional biofuels will be needed to meet the target
- Para 95 Recommended definition of lifecycle CO2 emissions does not mention induced land use change
- Para 97 mandate on its own will not incentivise domestic production
- Para 98 MBIE funded Wood Fibres Futures project says wait at least 3-5 years for any prospect of producing fuel from wood
- Para 115 The authors estimate that the policy will add an extra 5c/litre to the price of petrol and 10c/litre fuel to the price of diesel in 2025 (note, NZ consumes roughly 20M barrels of petrol and 22M barrels of diesel per year. So these costs, the NZ biofuels obligation will add roughly $510M per year of extra cost to consumers at the pump)
- Para 123 says “in order to ensure emissions reductions to atmosphere to the levels estimated are achieved, it is critical that the carbon intensity of each biofuel used is calculated for its full lifecycle (including emissions resulting from direct land use change, cultivation and harvesting, production, transport), and only biofuels with relatively low life cycle emissions are imported.” This suggests strongly that the emissions impact analysis that preceded this para is highly dependent on assumptions that low emissions biofuel actually can be obtained. Note that again induced land use change emissions are not mentioned.
- Para 124 “Increased fuel prices from the sustainable biofuels mandate will negatively impact on people with few viable low-emissions transport alternatives, such as disabled people or low-income New Zealanders, including Māori and Pacific communities, and rural communities. Low-income households will be especially affected as transport consumes a larger share of their household expenditure.”
The minutes of cabinet decision (https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/18369-sustainable-biofuels-mandate-final-policy-design-minute-of-decision-proactiverelease-pdf) say:
Para 10 “agreed that the bill will provide for high-level sustainability criteria including:
10.1 biodiversity: feedstocks should not have a significant adverse effect on biodiversity;
10.2 impact on carbon stocks: feedstocks should not lead to deforestation of native forests, canopy forests or the destruction of wetlands or peatland to plant biofuel crops. The impact of biofuel crops on soil carbon should also be considered;
10.3 food and feed security: feedstocks should not adversely impact food and feed security;
10.4 water quality and availability: biofuels crops should not negatively affect water quality or significantly restrict its availability in an area;
10.5 the risk of indirect land use change: feedstocks should not be associated with a high risk of indirect land use change;
10.6 use of waste: it will be important that the mandate supports the principles of the waste hierarchy”
…which all sounds good but they are asking for something that effectively doesn’t exist.
The government’s planned date for the obligation to commence is 1 April 2023.