Are current agrofuels a valid tool to tackle climate change ? An assessment of French and British “biofuel” policies


THESE 2006


Are current agrofuels a valid tool to tackle climate change ? An assessment of French and British “biofuel” policiese.

 PhD studentJérémie Mercier
 University-Doctoral schoolImperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, Centre for Environmental Policy, South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ, UK
 SupervisorZen Makuch
 Laboratory of welcomeCentre for Environmental Policy
 Responsible for thesis Zen Makuch
Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the University of London, July 2011


In this thesis, the wording “biofuel” was determined to be inaccurate and misleading. The wording “agrofuel” was preferred for being more neutral and appropriate. This research investigates whether current liquid agrofuels are a valid tool to tackle climate change. Although agrofuels are often promoted for their potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to fossil fuels, it was found that only a fraction of their direct GHG emissions are usually taken into account. Their indirect land-use change (iLUC) GHG emissions are poorly understood even though they might offset all expected direct GHG benefits while their non-iLUC indirect GHG emissions are always ignored. Methodologies in Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) were found to be subjective because they contain lots of bias and rely on numerous assumptions. It was also shown that agrofuels’ non-GHG impacts are poorly comprehended. Agrofuel certification schemes were assessed as not being stringent enough to ensure that certified agrofuels bring any environmental benefit compared to fossil fuels. Certification schemes rarely acknowledge uncertainty and tend to have an oversimplified perception of agrofuels’ environmental impacts. Moreover, certification cannot encompass the fact that agrofuels’ iLUC will increase if the consumption of land-intensive foods such as meat and dairy also increases and that agrofuels’ rapid development is not sufficient to compensate for the increase in global oil demand for transport. Though under the same European directives, France and the UK have developed radically different agrofuel policies, which were found to be justified by very different “scientific” results. The challenge posed by iLUC was found to be important enough to decrease UK agrofuel blending targets while French official LCAs confirmed that French agrofuels bring significant GHG benefits. The relative British transparency may actually be used as a pretext to avoid costly agrofuel imports while the French bias may be used to promote French agriculture. 4


Cf les principales conclusions présentées dans le travail de thèse (dont certaines mériteraient sûrement d’êtres rediscutées et reprécisées).

Chapter 6 : Conclusions and recommendations

“Despair is the conclusion of fools.”
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), British Prime Minister and writer
“The biggest impediment to action against climate change is no longer climate change denial. It is greenwash !”
George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, Imperial College CEP Seminar Series, 15th February 2007

6.1 Summary of the main findings and contributions of this thesis

This section presents the main findings of this research, which are considered to add up to new knowledge in the agrofuel area.

From chapter 2 :

  • The wording “biofuel” is inappropriate and misleading for most current transport liquid biomass-derived fuels. The wording “agrofuel” was found to be more neutral and more adequate for such fuels.

  • Greenwashing arguments and terminology are commonly used by stakeholders from the concerned industries but also in the politics for the promotion of agrofuels.

  • Although it is recognised that only the agroethanol share is “renewable” in agro-ETBE and agro-MTBE, agrodiesel is often assumed to be 100% “renewable” even though about 11% of its mass usually come from fossil-fuel derived methanol.

  • The terminology “renewable” seems inappropriate to describe agrofuels as regards the way they are currently obtained.

From chapter 3 :

  • Agrofuels usually are a small output from their production chains.

  • Agrofuels’ environmental impacts are numerous : direct primary, secondary and tertiary ; indirect linked to iLUC and not linked to iLUC, and affect all environmental areas of concern, not only GHG emissions.

  • Several official data on transport GHG emissions consider that agrofuels’ GHG emissions are equal to zero in transport, not because agrofuels are GHG-neutral but because they attribute their GHG emissions to other sectors than transport.

  • For most agrofuels, there are serious doubts that GHG benefits are brought compared with fossil fuels when iLUC is taken into account or even if it happens that the actual N2O emission factor is higher than that currently used in calculations.

  • The assessment of indirect land-use change associated with a specific land for agrofuel production is highly uncertain.

  • Many factors already put pressure on land use, such as the growing world population, increasing meat and animal product consumption (which are more land-intensive than vegetable products in general), desertification, urban sprawl, cropland soil exhaustion, etc. Agrofuels are a new factor that adds up to other types of pressure on land use.

  • Indirect impacts of agrofuels other than iLUC GHG emissions are so far ignored.

From chapter 4 :

  • Agrofuels’ certification schemes capture only some direct environmental impacts of agrofuels (direct secondary and tertiary are not taken into account). Such oversimplification of agrofuels’ environmental impacts gives irrelevant results for their actual environmental balance.

  • Agrofuels’ certification schemes are not stringent enough for most certified agrofuels to have low direct non-GHG environmental impacts. Thus, agrofuel certifications may sometimes appear as a means to legitimise intensive unsustainable farming practices.

  • Agrofuels’ GHG emission default values or GHG emission reduction targets in agrofuel certification schemes rely on too many choices and assumptions to be easily compared.

  • All methodologies for the calculation of agrofuels’ GHG emissions rely at some point on methodological bias (choice of co-product treatment, choice of baseline, choice of boundaries, choice of method for the annualisation of LUC GHG emissions, etc.) or assumptions based on uncertain science (choice of N2O emission factor, iLUC GHG emissions, etc.).

  • The choice of global warming potentials over 100 years (Kyoto Protocol recommendation) seems inconsistent with the choice of annualisation of LUC GHG emissions over 20 years.

  • Apart from reduction of land needs thanks to changes in consumption patterns and dietary habits of consumers, few solutions seem to prevent current agrofuels from causing iLUC.

  • Current agrofuels may be seen as an incentive for citizens not to change their personal transportation choices and therefore habits.

  • In most cases, agrofuels’ potential direct GHG benefits are currently only possible if co-products are used as animal feed supposed to displace imported feed (for instance soymeal in Europe). Thus, agrofuels’ direct GHG emission reductions are somehow artificially gained from the livestock sector, which is known to already be a major GHG contributor.

  • According to most scenarios, agrofuels’ rapidly increasing consumption will not be sufficient to compensate for the increase in transport energy demand. Thus, agrofuels only add up to growing fossil fuel demand, they do not really substitute for fossil fuels at the world level.

  • Discussing agrofuels’ environmentl sustainability does not make sense when agrofuels are not assessed in the general context of increasing land needs and increasing transport energy demand.

  • Considering current scenarios of rapid increases in transport energy demand (mostly met thanks to oil consumption), even best theoretical agrofuels (ideal zero-carbon agrofuels) do not allow a reduction in transport’s growing GHG emissions.

From chapter 5 :

  • The RTFO reports make agrofuels’ consumption in the UK relatively transparent, with information of agrofuels’ consumption by feedstock or by country of origin presented when available. However, the default values used to assess agrofuels’ GHG emission reductions do not take account of indirect impacts and are arbitrarily chosen in ways that make some types of agrofuels with specific unreported data have lower default values than those with reported data. The official estimate of average GHG emission reduction enabled by agrofuels consumed in the UK thus appears to be artificially high.

  • The RTFO is designed in such a way that it incentivises fuel suppliers not to report previous land use when conversion of forest or grassland occurred.

  • The French authorities increased agrofuel blending targets for France based on extremely favourable GHG emission reductions calculated in a 2002 report of Ecobilan (Ecobilan/PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2002b). However, this report lacks transparency, contains numerous flaws and methodological biases that favour agrofuels and was not made public in its entirety for nearly 5 years.

  • French reports to the European Commission on the implementation of the 2003/30/EC Directive are not transparent, contain numerous flaws and overestimate the agroethanol blending by energy content in France because of a wrong choice of LHV for agroethanol contained in agro-ETBE.

  • There has been no transparency on the origin (feedstock, country of origin or previous land use) of agrofuels consumed in France since 2004.

  • The latest French reports on agrofuels’ GHG emissions used methodological biases that artificially improved agrofuels’ GHG balance. In a withdrawn version of the latest 2010 report, fossil fuel GHG intensities were even exaggerated in order to improve agrofuels’ GHG emission reduction compared with fossil fuels. Finally, the conclusions of the last official report do not take account of agrofuels’ iLUC GHG emissions.

  • There is little debate on agrofuels’ iLUC GHG emissions in France, resulting in a general misunderstanding of this concept. Moreover, some stakeholders of the French agrofuel industry take advantage of this confusion to promote agrofuels from French feedstocks, claiming such agrofuels do not cause iLUC.

  • The UK agrofuel policy used the pretext of to the evolution of the scientific debate on agrofuels’ GHG implications to adapt its policy whereas France did not change its targets.

  • “Scientific’ results on agrofuels” GHG balance are different between France and the UK. They actually match political aims of promoting French agriculture in one case, and of reducing forecast imports of agrofuels in the British case. Thus “science” is dependent on political and economic conditions and used in a biased way for the justification of political objectives.

Overall finding :

While transport GHG emissions are increasing, agrofuels are brought in to reduce transport GHG emissions. However, agrofuels’ overall GHG emissions are often comparable to or even worse than those of fossil fuels, not to mention other environmental impacts.

Therefore, agrofuels’ increasing consumption may result in a higher increase in transport-associated GHG emissions than if fossil fuels continued to be used (nearly) alone. Due to increasing transport energy demand, even if agrofuels were GHG-neutral, they could at best only partly reduce the increase in transport GHG emissions.
Thus, agrofuels can be seen as a massive “red herring” to transport GHG emissions.


  • Papers and Publications

    The following presentations and publications written or co-authored by the author are directly related to this thesis :


    Mercier, J. & Gathorne-Hardy, A. (2010) Why such differences between the French and British agrofuel policies ? Oral presentation given at the 18th European Biomass Conference, 3rd - 7th May 2010, Lyon, France.

    Mercier, J. & Gathorne-Hardy, A. & Makuch, Z. (2009) Can biofuels justify current transport policies ? Oral presentation given at the Climate Change - Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions Congress, 10th - 12th March 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark.

    Mercier, J. & Gathorne-Hardy, A. & Makuch, Z. (2008) How sustainable are current transport biofuels ? Oral presentation given at the 7th BIEE Academic Conference, 24th & 25th September 2008, Oxford, UK.

    Mercier, J. & Gathorne-Hardy, A., Perry, M. & Makuch, Z. (2008) How sustainable are current biofuels ? Oral presentation given at the 16th European Biomass Conference, 2nd - 6th June 2008, Valencia, Spain.

    Woods, J. & Mercier, J. (2007) Sustainability Criteria for Biofuels. Econsense. Berlin, Germany, p.61-67, [Online] Available from here [Accessed 25th January 2011]

    Mercier, J. & Makuch, Z. (2007) Key elements for the development of a sustainability certification of biofuels. In: 15th European Biomass Conference, 7th - 11th May 2006, Berlin, Germany, pp. 3019-3021.


Zen Makuch

Imperial College of Science

Technology and Medicine

Centre for Environmental Policy

South Kensington Campus

London SW7 2AZ, UK