The Biofuel Bill currently before Parliament should not proceed in its current form, says Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright. International concern about the sustainability of biofuels and their true environmental and economic impacts has heated up considerably in recent months – which signals a need for caution.
Dr Wright, an independent Officer of Parliament, was speaking to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee.
Biofuels are seen as a way of achieving both lower CO2 emissions and energy security. But Dr Wright does not believe the mechanisms allowed for in the Bill would deliver on these two goals.
Biofuels appear to be carbon-neutral, because plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow, and this is equal to the CO2 emitted when the fuel is burned. However this does not account for the CO2 emitted during cultivation and processing into fuel.
"Lifecycle assessment of a wide range of biofuels shows large variation in CO2 emissions across fuels and, in some cases, across countries," says Dr Wright. "Ethanol from corn in the US, for example, is a very poor performer, with total CO2 emissions close to those of diesel."
The Biofuel Bill has no inbuilt mechanism for ensuring that biofuels used in New Zealand would emit significantly less CO2 over their lifecycle than fossil fuels, and would require an Order in Council to set a minimum standard.
"Just ensuring a positive net reduction in CO2 would not go far enough to make a New Zealand Biofuel Obligation worthwhile," says Dr Wright. "The European Commission, for example, is considering a biofuel 35% CO2 emission reduction standard over fossil fuels."
Importation of biofuels is permitted under the Bill, to meet the mandatory percentages. "But how practical and expensive will it be to develop, monitor and enforce compliance with sustainability standards offshore? I remain to be convinced that this is a feasible way forward," says Dr Wright.
Damage to New Zealand's clean, green image is another factor to consider. "New Zealand is a country with a low population density and an economy largely based on biological production. If we can't produce our own biofuels, who can?"
Dr Wright does not see domestic production of biofuels as a viable significant source of transport fuel in the short term. "And it may well be that before second generation biofuel technology is fully developed, electricity will have provided a better way to power our transport fleet."
"We need to focus on our ever-increasing consumption of transport energy. Curbing its rate of growth needs to be done with at least as much enthusiasm as the production of alternative fuels."
"Demand reduction is a difficult area; aspirations are easy, but results require more."
For further information:
Email Sharon Cuzens, ph 04 495 8353 or 027 446 3326.