In Brief

Could biofuels offer a solution to Germany’s fossil fuel addiction?

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Last Sunday a historical election took place in Europe when Germans voted deciding who will replace the Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16-year tenure. The elections saw a tight race between the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which eventually culminated in SPD’s narrow victory with the incumbent vice chancellor Olaf Scholz becoming the likely leader of the next German federal parliament, Bundestag. 

But how will the result of the German federal elections influence European climate policies in the light of the country’s leading role in the European Union? 

For long, Germany has been at the forefront of shaping the EU’s environmental agenda and climate politics are likely to remain at the core of German political debate no matter what the set-up for the next coalition government may look like. 

That said, the German Greens have been speculated to be a part of the new government, potentially forming a power sharing alliance with the SPD. The Greens started to gain more popularity in the spring and after the devastating floods in Western Germany this summer, climate change has been a top priority amongst the German public

Yet, Germany’s overreliance on fossil fuels has been recurring criticism in the past, hindering the country’s process to transition its automotive sector to a greener future. Under Merkel – dubbed as the climate Chancellor – Germany became known of its climate leadership in Europe nonetheless the German’s love for cars slowed down the implementation of green policies. 

In the past, Merkel’s critics have accused her of focusing on the economic benefits of fossil fuels instead of their damaging environmental impacts. Greenpeace labelled the German automotive sector as an Achilles heel for Merkel’s CDU, which has a close relationship with the country’s leading export industry. 

But could the German automotive sector be a part of European green transition instead of standing in the way of it? 

In the beginning of September, Merkel opened the international car show in Munich by declaring that the German car industry is a central part of the solution’ to climate change. Prior to this, she had stated hoping to see one million electric car charging points in Germany by 2030, an attempt to halve carbon emissions. 

Despite the past attempts to cut down greenhouse-gas emissions, the German transport sector remains as the only industry that has yet failed to achieve any greenhouse-gas reductions since 1990. 

While Merkel’s attempts to electrify the automotive sector are well-meaning, the reception by the Germans raises questions on the prospects of the transition happening anytime soon. A survey conducted in 22 countries found that Germans were the most sceptical of the viability of electric vehicles, with 58% of respondents stating that their next car would ‘probably not’ be electric. 

Regarding take-up, despite the investments Germany trails behind Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In addition to the public concerns of the feasibility of electric cars, experts are concerned that the switch to electric vehicles may cause unemployment since every 50th German is directly employed by the automotive sector. 

This is where biofuels offer an alternative for the German car sector to move away from fossil fuels without the negative impacts of fully electrifying the industry. Electric vehicles are far away from being a cure-all for Germany’s fossil fuel addiction: their clean image has been challenged by experts due to the polluting battery manufacturing process. 

Only with a greater deployment of renewables like biofuels can the automotive sector in Germany – and in Europe – achieve lower emission levels and counterbalance some of the unfavourable impacts of the electric vehicle production as well as the reluctance from the public to support the move. 

Nevertheless, the EU has hampered this process with its policies targeting the biofuels sector, palm oil in particular. Back in 2018, the EU implemented a de facto ban on palm oil for biodiesel citing environmental concerns which shocked the leading palm oil producers, leading to calls to end the EU’s ‘crop apartheid

The scientific basis for singling out palm oil from other biofuels remains questionable: Palm oil offers the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop – up to nine times more than rapeseed, sunflower, and soybean oil – producing 35% of all vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops. 

Thus, critics have questioned the motives behind the palm oil ban stating it may have been a protectionist move to shield the EU’s domestic biofuels industry – notably European rapeseed dominating the biofuels market. The ban also ignores the progress the palm oil industry has made towards sustainability in recent years. 

Last month, the leading palm oil producers announced their plans to transition to net-zero emissions. This ambitious target represents the will within the sector to protect the environment as well as to comply with the highest environmental standards set by the EU. 

Malaysia serves as an example of the move to further enhance palm oil sustainability: With its nationally mandated palm oil certification scheme, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), the country has achieved around 90% sustainability within its palm oil sector. As a result, Malaysia has witnessed a steady decline in deforestation rates for the past four years, attributable to the legal requirements under the MSPO to protect the local nature and wildlife. 

In the light of the progress of palm oil producers like Malaysia to render their industries sustainable and compliant to the EU regulations, it would be beneficial for European palm oil buyers like Germany to better utilise the opportunities biofuels offer for its transport sector. 

A recent study published in Nature portrays a bleak picture: Almost 60% of oil and gas reserves and 90% of coal must remain underground to keep global warming below 1.5C to avoid the most severe effects of climate change. This leaves much less room for fossil fuels to be extracted than previously estimated. 

The following weeks will show the make-up of the German government which will eventually shape the EU’s climate agenda and the potential utilisation of biofuels as part of the plans to decarbonise the transport sector. 

With the known dangers of the overreliance on fossil fuels, biofuels could assist Europe to transition to a greener future but only if the sustainability initiatives in sectors like palm oil are acknowledged and supported. 

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