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Carmakers rethink sustainability approach amid E10 fuel fiasco

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Carmakers rethink sustainability approach amid E10 fuel fiasco
Photo: DPA
07:06 CEST+02:00
Germany's introduction of the E10 biofuel has been a public-relations disaster. But as Alexander Bakst reports, the auto industry is already rethinking its approach to sustainability.

E10 was supposed to be a step towards Germany's clean-energy future.

Spurred by governmental quotas for biofuel, the country's petroleum industry introduced a new, ostensibly environmentally-friendly petrol with 10 percent ethanol this year.

But somehow, consumer preference was left out of the equation, sparking an unexpected public backlash by car-loving Germans.

“I'm not sure my car can handle it,” said Fabian Lauterbach, a frequent driver in Cologne who is sceptical of the new fuel. “And when I hear that CO2 emissions are only slightly reduced, it makes me wonder what this is all about.”

Lauterbach is not alone in distrusting E10's environmental usefulness and vehicle compatibility. A report by the petroleum industry association MWV reveals that only one in five German drivers fuelled up on E10 last month.

Following a belated information campaign by government and industry leaders, two thirds of motorists currently know whether E10 is safe for their cars, according to the report. But nearly half of these drivers still refuse to buy the controversial fuel.

The top reason for rejecting the new gasoline is that it actually reduces fuel efficiency. “Cars running on E10 consume marginally more fuel while producing slightly fewer greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Bernhard Tschenscher, an engineering expert at Germany's automotive club ADAC.

ADAC tests show that E10 causes an average 1.5 percent bump in fuel consumption compared to Super E5, which contains roughly half the amount of ethanol. At the same time, CO2 emissions are reduced by an average of 0.9 percent. Actual rates vary depending on the weather, driving styles and other factors.

A holistic view

At the bottom line, E10 provides a marginal benefit to the environment by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. However, increased use of biofuel crops would also reduce overall greenhouse-gas levels because the plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere – assuming they didn't simply replace food crops.

In that sense, there is more to the ecological footprint of a vehicle than its on-road emission of carbon dioxide, mono-nitrogen oxides and other greenhouse gases. This holistic approach to sustainability is beginning to take hold in the German auto industry.

As Germany's largest automaker and the world's number two after Toyota, Volkswagen provides so-called “life cycle assessments” for select vehicles in an attempt to highlight their overall environmental impact.

“The life cycle assessment considers not only the driving time of a vehicle, but rather its entire life cycle from production through utilisation to disposal,” said Volkswagen technology spokesman Peter Weisheit. These assessments, called LCA for short, are certified by the German product safety organisation TÜV Nord.

Germany's other leading car makers have adopted a similar approach.

“In principal, sustainability is relevant at every stage of the supply chain,” said Bernhard Ederer, spokesperson for BMW Automotives. “From the idea for a vehicle to its entry into the recycling circuit, it is important to make sparing use of our resources.”

BMW's claim to eco-friendly manufacturing is backed by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index DJSI, which measures the overall ecological and ethical profile of major quoted firms. In 2010, the DJSI listed BMW as leader of the “automobiles & parts” sector for the sixth time in a row.

The auto maker plans to introduce its first fully electric vehicle in 2013 under the name “BMW i3.” That same year, Volkswagen will begin series production of its “Up! blue-e-motion” compact car, followed by a fully electric engine for its popular Golf model.

“We are convinced that such vehicles only have a chance on the market if their total cost of ownership is competitive,” said BMW's Ederer, referring to the cost of purchasing, driving and maintaining a vehicle from car lot to junk yard.

Refineries roll back E10 production

Until then, eco-friendly consumers of German cars will have to rely on fuel efficiency technologies, hybrid vehicles – and E10. This comes at a price: German petroleum producers under the MWV umbrella estimate that it costs an extra €0.10 to €0.20 to produce one litre of E10 versus E5, depending on the price of crude oil.

With oil currently hovering above $100 a barrel, the price difference may be negligible. Additionally, the German government has introduced a tax scheme to reduce the price of E10 at the pump by compensating for the higher fuel consumption rates.

But German petroleum refineries are already scaling back on E10 production, choosing instead to meet their quotas through other means – increased sales of bio-diesel, for example. BP, Royal Dutch Shell and other major refineries have cut back or halted the roll-out of E10, according to the German petrol retailers' association BTG.

In Cologne, one of Fabian Lauterbach's friends was recently willing to give E10 a try. But the experiment was thwarted by supply shortages at his local petrol station. “By the time I got there, the E10 pump had already been changed back to normal super,” he said.

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