German govt to proceed with curbs on crop-based biofuels: Minister

17 Jan 2023 | John McGarrity

Germany’s Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke on Tuesday said that she will soon introduce proposals to curb the use of crop-based biofuels in the country, which is the EU’s biggest member state in terms of fuel consumption and a major producer of ethanol and biodiesel from edible crops such as sugar beet, wheat and rapeseed.

The comments from the minister, who is a member of the Green Party in the country’s centre-left three-party coalition with the Social Democrats and Free Democrats, will likely alarm the country’s agriculture and crop-based biofuels sectors just a week before producers and German policymakers gather in Berlin for a major industry conference.

“I would like us to increase the use of real biofuels from waste, from residues, from cooking oil. Here we still have potential and opportunities to ensure that the greenhouse gas quota in transport can be met. That is why we will introduce the legal basis for phasing out agrofuels from food and feed crops into the Cabinet as soon as possible,” Lemke told an agricultural conference organised by her ministry, known in Germany by the initials BMUV.

Germany from the start of this year has already banned palm oil in biodiesel, a decision that had been made in 2021 by the previous government.

Lemke said in her speech that the rise in prices for edible commodities such as wheat, corn and vegoils in the past year that had been worsened by the war in Ukraine was being exacerbated by environmental factors such as extreme weather and pollution, another reason why Germany needed a major rethink of its policies in agriculture and biofuels.

“The weaknesses of the existing agricultural and food system have become more apparent than ever before – especially in the hot droughts. The three major global ecological crises: climate crisis, species extinction, pollution crisis are now endangering the foundations of agriculture and our food,” Lemke continued in her speech.

Lemke didn't refer to particular proposals in today's speech. 

Lemke and ministers for agriculture and foreign affairs in the second quarter last year raised the prospect that Germany would introduce a strict cap on the use of crop-based biofuels in the wake of food price inflation worsened by Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine and a blockade of grain shipments from Black Sea ports.

Although that blockade was eventually lifted in the autumn following a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey, fears have persisted about global food security.

Today's speech suggests BMUV is rekindling plans for a crop-based biofuels cap that appeared to go into hiatus in the second half of 2022, which was despite expectations last autumn from German biofuels lobbies and policy analysts that the cabinet would proceed with changes before the end of last year.

A document drawn up by BMUV and widely circulated in May 2022 included proposals to slash the share of crop-based biofuels in the country’s fuel pool to 2.5% in 2023, down from a share of 4.4% expected for this year – a plan that drew a furious response from biofuels lobbies.

That same document from BMUV also proposed that the share of crop-based biofuels will be further reduced after 2023 to zero by 2030, a move that would majorly draw down consumption of crop-based ethanol and biodiesel in Europe’s largest transport market.

To help mitigate the impact of the lowered crop cap, “quantities of waste-based biofuels from used cooking oils and animal fats that are not recycled are slightly increased,” the May 2023 document recommended.

And in details that were of major interest to suppliers of fuels, biofuels and traders of compliance credits related to transport, BMUV last May also proposed that for the years 2023 to 2026, the country’s GHG reduction quota “must be adjusted slightly downwards, i.e. it increases at a slightly slower rate in these years.”

German lobbies say a crop cap is a decision that could be taken by the cabinet without the requirement for a vote in parliament, but that any mooted changes to the country's GHG reduction quota in transport would require the backing of German MPs. 

Biofuels shares

German biodiesel lobby VDB last month said figures published late in 2022 by Germany’s Federal Office of Food and Agriculture showed that for biofuels included in the GHG quota 2.29 million tons of biodiesel, 1.15 million tons of bioethanol and 450,000 tons of hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO, Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) were taken into account for the year 2021, the most recent year that full data is available.

Of the biodiesel volume, just over 70% was crop-based, the VDB said.  

The VDB is a co-organiser of the Fuels of the Future conference in Berlin on January 23-24, at which policies towards crop-based biofuels will be at the top of the agenda.