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Biofuels Falling Out of Favor in Germany

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The European Union once saw biofuels as the nearly perfect tool to reduce emissions from cars and trucks. In Germany, there was even more reason for enthusiasm. Germans thought biofuels would help the country meet it climate protection goals without having to ask its powerful auto industry to make sacrifices. But it hasn't turned out that way. From Berlin, Kyle James reports on biofuel's fall from grace.

KYLE JAMES: You know the old saying: If it sounds too good to be true, according to Demas Urliger(ph), a traffic policy expert at the German environmental group NABU, that adage definitely applies to biofuels.

Mr. DEMAS URLINGER (Traffic Policy Expert, NABU): In the beginning, it sounds very good. You don't have to change your cars. You don't have to change your life system. Instead of using fossil fuels, you take something different, and everything else can stay the same. And this is something that doesn't work out.

JAMES: As it turns out, this so-called first generation of biofuels made from crops such as corn, wheat or rapeseed is not the environmental savior it was once thought to be. Despite big government subsidies to push biofuels - around $4 billion in the EU in 2006 - their green credentials are questionable at best. Mikhail Serpal(ph) is with the International Transport Forum.

Mr. MIKHAIL SERPAL (International Transport Forum): Some of them, if you take the whole production process into account, use of land, use of water, fertilizer, etc., they don't perform very well in mitigating C02 emissions. Some even have - are worse than fossil fuels.

JAMES: Once seen as almost a panacea, the biofuel's pendulum is swinging back, and governments in Europe have begun rolling back their generous subsidies. But it's not just the experts and policy makers who are having second thoughts. The disenchantment with biofuels is being heard on the streets.

(Soundbite of music)

JAMES: At a Shell gas station in Berlin, protestors are calling for an end to what they call the biofuel insanity. Organizer Houka Benna(ph) says biofuel crop fields are edging out forests and wetlands. He says farmers are growing plants for biofuel instead of for food, resulting in shortages and rising prices.

Mr. HOUKA BENNA: (Through translator) We need a global stop in the production of biofuels, and we have to do all we can do dramatically reduce car and airplane traffic.

JAMES: But Germany is home to the high-performance automobile, and it counted on greener gas to help reduce emissions so it wouldn't have to impose restrictions on its car industry. And in yet another blow to biofuels and an embarrassment for the government, Berlin recently had to scratch plans to double the amount of bioethanol in gas. It was discovered that over three million cars on the road wouldn't be able to run on the new blend.

(Soundbite of a gas pump)

JAMES: Forty-eight-year-old Harold Bloom(ph) is filling up his car's tank. He shakes his head when asked about Berlin's biofuel reversal.

Mr. HAROLD BLOOM: (Through translator) It doesn't make the government look very good, acting too quickly on this. But I think it wanted to do something for the environment, and that's okay. We should do everything we can, of course, after getting all the facts straight. But if they really have to cut down rain forest to produce biofuels, then I'm against them.

JAMES: Now the thinking is, what next? The EU still wants to power 10 percent of its transportation with biofuels by 2020, so politicians and industry leaders are focusing their attention these days on a new light on the horizon.

Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL (Germany): (German spoken)

JAMES: German Chancellor Angela Merkel presides over the inauguration a small second generation biofuels plant by a company called CHOREN. She has some high-profile company with her, like the CEOs of Daimler and Volkswagen. Second-generation biofuels are produced with biomass materials like wood, straw or even weeds, so they don't directly compete with food crops. Tom Blades, head of CHOREN, says his second-generation Sun Diesel is head and shoulders above anything on the market today.

Mr. TOM BLADES (CEO, CHOREN): We would beat AAA, I guess, if we were judged by Moody's. Compared to fossil, we actually lowered the C02 emissions in the product life cycle, as we call it, by over 90 percent.

JAMES: That's an enticing claim. But critics have their doubts. They say costs are likely to remain for the foreseeable future, and they don't believe there will be enough biomass material for large-scale production without planting a lot of new land, which, again, could affect food crops. Some fear this could be the beginning of yet another biofuels letdown.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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