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UK Environmental Audit Committee Calls for Moratorium on Biofuel Targets

Greenhouse gas emissions plotted against overall environmental impacts of 29 transport fuels, scaled relative to gasoline. Fuels in the shaded area are considered advantageous in both their overall environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions. Adapted by Scharlemann and Laurance from Zah et. al. Click to enlarge.

In a report released today, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the UK House of Commons concludes that the UK government and the European Union should not have pursued targets to increase the use of biofuels in the absence of robust sustainability standards and mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change. The EAC calls for a moratorium on biofuel targets in the UK and in Europe.

The EAC report—Are biofuels sustainable?—also concludes that biofuels are generally an expensive and ineffective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other policies. Emissions from road transport can be cut cost-effectively, and with lower environmental risk, by implementing a range of other policies, the report concludes.

Although recognizing that some biofuels are sustainable and can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, the EAC report says that without sustainability standards, the production of some biofuels could lead to environmental damage in the UK and the destruction of environmentally crucial rainforests.

Biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transport—but at present most biofuels have a detrimental impact on the environment overall.

—Tim Yeo, EAC Chairman

The report urges the UK government to ensure that biofuels policy balances greenhouse gas cuts with wider environmental impacts so that biofuels contribute to sustainable emission reductions.

The EAC argues that the UK should concentrate on the use of sustainable biofuels such as waste vegetable oil and the development of more efficient biofuel technologies that could have a role to play in the future once they have been shown to be sustainable.

The Government and EU’s neglect of biomass and other more effective policies to reduce emissions in favour of biofuels is misguided. The current policy and support framework must be changed to ensure that sustainable bioenergy resources maximize their potential to generate energy for the lowest possible greenhouse gas emissions. In general biofuels produced from conventional crops should no longer receive support from the Government. Instead the Government should concentrate on the development of more efficient biofuel technologies that might have a sustainable role in the future.

The EAC also concludes that:

  • Biofuels are unlikely to improve fuel security as they largely rely on fossil fuels for their production;

  • Current agricultural support for biofuels is largely unsustainable;

  • There could be significant opportunities for cost-effectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions by planting forests and restoring habitats; and

  • A large biofuel industry based on current technology is likely to increase food prices and could damage food security in developing countries.

  • On the basis of current biofuel technology, more greenhouse gas cuts could be achieved at lower cost and risk by implementing a range of other policies.

  • Advanced second generation biofuels may have an important role in the future, but these technologies are some years away. The Government should support their development by creating a stable investment climate out to 2020.

It will take considerable courage for the Government and EU to admit that the current policy arrangements for biofuels are inappropriate. The policy realignments that are required will be a test of the Government’s commitment to moving the UK towards a sustainable low carbon economy.

The report is one of an increasing number of documents calling for a more granular assessment of the benefits and impacts of different biofuels.

In September 2007, a study prepared for discussion by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Roundtable on Sustainable Development, concluded that the potential of first-generation biofuel technologies—i.e.,ethanol and biodiesel—to deliver a major contribution to the energy demands of the transport sector without compromising food prices and the environment was very limited.

The report suggested that although second-generation technologies are promising, they may never be viable; that the economic outlook for biofuels is “fragile”; and that government policies are “inefficient”, "not cost-effective” and are setting ambitious market shares without an in-depth understanding of a sustainable production level and from where these biofuels could be supplied. (Earlier post.)

Last week, a report from a working group of experts convened by the UK’s Royal Society has concluded that although biofuels have a potentially useful role in tackling the issues of climate change and energy supply for transportation, important opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, and to ensure wider environmental and social benefits, may be missed with existing policy frameworks and targets. (Earlier post.)

Also last week, an internal working document by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center that was leaked to the European press concluded that the costs of achieving the proposed 10% biofuels target in Europe will likely outweigh the benefits and may not even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Earlier post.)

In the 4 January 2008 issue of the journal Science, Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute noted that:

Not all biofuels are beneficial when their full environmental impacts are assessed; some of the most important, such as those produced from corn, sugarcane, and soy, perform poorly in many contexts. There is a clear need to consider more than just energy and greenhouse-gas emissions when evaluating different biofuels and to pursue new biofuel crops and technologies. Governments should be far more selective about which biofuel crops they support through subsidies and tax benefits. For example, multibillion-dollar subsidies for US corn production appear to be a perverse incentive from a rational cost-benefit perspective.



Harvey D

Finally, the truth is coming out. Ethanol derived from Soy, Corn, Canola, sugar beets + many other edible feedstocks is not sustainable (as expected) to feed our hungry 15 mpg gas guzzlers.

Many other biofuels (other than the future improved cellulosics) cannot do much better.

One of the best way to reduce GHG from our tansportation vehicles (an our residential HVAC) is progressive (but accellerated) electrification. PHEVs (with e-mode from 30 to 60 miles) could reduce fuel consumption by up to 80%-85% in most cases and make cellulosic biofuels much more sustainable.

A PHEV-BEV mix could do even better. Affordable quick charge super-caps/batteries combo will make that possible within a few years.

Corn & sugar based ethanol production will have to be curtailed within 10-15 years because it does not make sense. Agriculture exist to feed humans not gas guzzlers.


I hope reports like these stimulate changes in government policy.


Sadly, the Brits don't look at the world. No word about the vast potential for sugarcane ethanol from the South. Sugarcane ethanol cuts carbon emissions by 80%, it's largely sustainable, can replace all oil (tens of millions of hectares on non-forest land in Latin America and Africa), is cheaper than petroleum, and would be the single easiest way to end poverty in developing countries (which brings innumerable environmental benefits because poverty is obviously the number one cause of environmental degradation).

But then, it would be too revolutionary to see the EU or the UK yield some power to poor countries. That's simply not done. A missed opportunity.


Electrification is not the answer to transportation unless you want to build more fossil fueled power plants to supply electricity. The technology for producing electric power with lower GHG are not available or cost efficient at this time.


"Biofuels are unlikely to improve fuel security as they largely rely on fossil fuels for their production..."

Well yes, you need fossil fuels to make biofuels. That is a good leveraged use for fossil fuels and it makes the supply of them last longer, considering most people agree that there is probably a finite supply of them.


==Electrification is not the answer to transportation unless you want to build more fossil fueled power plants to supply electricity. The technology for producing electric power with lower GHG are not available or cost efficient at this time.==

Except thats not true.

Even if they were powered exclusively by the dirtiest coal available it would still be greener than a conventional car.

And 84% of the US car fleet could be powered by only existing power plants.

The more accurate thing to say is that new coal and new nuclear power plants are FAR too costly to even consider.

Meanwhile industrial scale renewables like Wind, SolarThermal, and GeoThermal are already cost effective, and growing at an exponential pace.

And there's plenty of green electricity to be had.


So Jonas will end all poverty with sugarcane & save the planet...& he will do it easily while making a tidy profit himself. Hasn't this been the song & dance that colonialists have spouted for hundreds of years? Of course, Jonas did tack on the environmental bit at the end of his 'I'll save the poor & retched masses' speech. Yes, his speech is revolutionary, but not the revolution he is thinking about.

& Mike...You haven't noticed the wind turbines popping up in lots of places? They are economically producing power. Germany & companies producing PVs with 40+% efficiencies & plummeting production costs are working to make solar cells viable. Test projects for wave & tidal energy production are in the water already.

Since electric motors are 3 times more efficient than internal combustion engines, sustainable electrification to supply moving machines is near. Open your eyes & look down the street just a little way.


==Sugarcane ethanol cuts carbon emissions by 80%, it's largely sustainable, can replace all oil (tens of millions of hectares on non-forest land in Latin America and Africa)==

Except thats also not true.

Especially when you consider the "non-forest land" wouldn't have adequate water supplies.

Plants are fragile to erratic and extreme weather patterns. SugarCane in particular. Hardly something you'd want to base the entire worlds economy on. Especially when we Know climate change will be causing that to happen.

==would be the single easiest way to end poverty in developing countries (which brings innumerable environmental benefits because poverty is obviously the number one cause of environmental degradation).==

And yet Brazil has some of the highest levels of poverty in the world. Just because a nation's GDP might go up, doesn't mean that it will be equitably distributed. And commodity farms are rarely an effective means of equitable distribution.

Stan Peterson

There is no reason that electrification of ground transport is somehow un-affordable.

The temporary problem of limited energy supplies is accentuated that there have been no suitable substitutes for liquid fossil hydrocarbons for the transport sector to date. Some uneducated people seem to think this temporary situation is somehow a law of nature. It is most certainly not.

That era is closing as substitutes are being developed for that market sector. Petroleum demand is a massive industry, dependent on virtually a single market. If an acceptable substitute appears, as is now finally technologically occurring, the artificial petroleum price cartel collapses.

High price semi-substitutes like biofuels will collapse as well, except for those able to earn a profit when prices decline by large amounts. Most biofuels are not competitive, never mind that they are unsustainable without returning lots of minerals and organics to the soils, so utilized.

Electricity has as a feature that the production of electro-motivated electrons, can be provided via at least a dozen different sources. While many are located in areas subject to political or economic problems, not all are. Some energy sources are just too dilute to provide much energy like "solar", wind or low level hydro; but these are still sources. Liquid, solid, and gaseous hydrocarbons can certainly be used.

Splitting the atom is becoming attractive once again, now that the reactor technology has matured, and regulation has achieved a serious and permanent level. Eventually, duplicating the hydrogen bomb blowing up in the sky every day, will be harnessed, and I am not speaking of phony "solar" energy. Controlled Fusion is coming, in just a relatively few decades, despite the official schedules. In order to justify the exppenditures for ITER, these research Programs reflect no progress in harnessing and controlling plasmas since the late 1970s, when ITER was originally proposed.

Energy limitations then ceases as a problem, and the temporary energy limitation era is over for a period measured in billions of years.

Harvey D

@ greyflcn:

I'm with you on electrification to reduce GHG and other unhealthy pollution.

Production of clean electricity, in very large quantity, is very doable. Our electricity, like many other places, is almost 100% hydro. France is 85% nuclear. Many countries are 25% to 40% wind already etc etc.

In the longer term, solar will and should contribute enough affordable, clean, sustainable electricity to satisfy a high percentage of our needs.

Dirty coal, NG and not so clean biofuels are not sustainable and not required.


==Splitting the atom is becoming attractive once again==

Nope. It costs too much.

You mention $4000-$6000/KW to any energy investor and they will just laugh at you ;D

==Some energy sources are just too dilute to provide much energy like "solar", wind or low level hydro; but these are still sources.==
Why should we care about "portability" with power plants?? They don't move.

Infact a distributed grid is a far more reliable and stable grid.
It also costs far less in terms of transmission infrastructure and maintainence.

Thats not a weakness, thats a strength!

And as far as "enough energy"
I think this is more than enough.


The EU Commission has already rejected the findings of this report as shortsighted, inaccurate and static. Seems like it's going to stick to the biofuels targets.


Electrification is fun, but for boys behind computers writing from the comfort of their homes. It's for the year 2050 or so. In the meantime, we need a workable and pragmatic alternative with the least possible negative effects. That alternative is obviously biofuels. There's not much else, is there?


The EU Commission has already rejected the findings of this report as shortsighted, inaccurate and static. Seems like it's going to stick to the biofuels targets.

You mean this European Commission?

    "The costs of achieving the proposed 10% biofuels target in Europe will likely outweigh the benefits and may not even reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to an internal working document by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center that was leaked to the European press."

Besides which, the judgement on this hasn't even happen, and won't until two days from now.

    The text, which could change before European commissioners meet on Jan. 23 to adopt a final version, also emphasizes that areas like rain forests and lands with high levels of biodiversity should not be converted to growing biofuels.

Controlled fusion is coming
The sun is running down.


I Repeat
the sun is running down!
Jonas, Musta slept in. Mate you are right there, Fossil fuels are not only potentially (actually very damaging, but have a much higher value in the longer term than lining the pockets of already well enough heeled.
our children and theirs will not thank us for being so short sighted.
Biology has been buisily and efficiently convering and moderating solation for millenia, We've been in the playpen for a century with maximum damage in the last half.
Biology is a workhorse of enormous resoure potential, only the sun (locally) exceeds the work being done by nature, And is renewable as long as it is allowed a planet to funtion. As a living sytem it is vulnerable to the usual life problems - aging, inbalance, evolution.
Peoples need to understand all this , so maybe we do but can we work with the system? uderstand and assist in the time of need? think or plan past our own self interest? well the masses are not known for getting it right.
The secret of enlightened self interest is somewhat subtle for our present conciosness, evolution takes up where the species need to adapt.
We go willingly or kicking and screaming or ...
Thats the way of the world.
As every journey starts with the first step, so every journey is a series of small steps.


Meanwhile, work on Polywell Fusion continues apace.

EMC2 Fusion has built an upgraded model of Bussard's last experimental plasma containment device, which was known as WB-6. (The WB stands for Wiffle Ball, a whimsical reference to the structure of the device.) "We got first plasma yesterday," Nebel said - but he and his colleagues in Santa Fe, N.M., still have a long way to get the WB-7 experiment up to the power levels Bussard was working with.

"We're not out trying to make a big splash on any of this stuff at this point," Nebel said. But he said he's hoping to find out by this spring whether or not Bussard's concept is worth pursuing with a larger demonstration project.

The initial analysis showed that Bussard's data on energy yields were consistent with expectations, Nebel said.

"We don't know for sure whether all that's right," he said, "but it'd be horrible for Mother Nature to give you what you expect to see, and have it all be bogus."


Just as another note. We all have high hopes here, each of us eyeing particular technologies that we think have promise. But the future we want, and what will actually happen, will no doubt be very, very different.



"tens of millions of acres on non-forest land in Africa and South America"

the ignorance that monkeys do not live in savannas as lions do not live is forests is completely incomprehensible to you

the ignorance that "non-forest land" supports complete and diverse ecosystems is completely inconprehensible to you

the ignorance that "tens of millions of acres" of plantations in Africa and South America have brought land destruction, species extinctions, ravage of natural ecosystems is incomprehensible to you

the ignorance that "ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil" incurs horrendous costs in land, air and water pollution, the destruction of entire ecosystems, and cannot survive without 'government' subsidies called incentives there, ie, taxpayers money, and burning of fields prior to harvest that cause entire areas of the country to be health respiratory hazards is all incomprehensible to you


Even if biofuels are planted on land of low ecological value (whatever that may mean), it is very probable that in many cases the actual use of the land will move to land of higher ecological value.

In other words : A cattle farmer will plant sugarcane on his land today, and burn rainforest to create new grassland tomorrow.
The statistics of the EU are OK, so everybody is happy.
Even more, next year, we can be even more happy, because we can reuse the burnt rainforest areas to plant second-generation green biofuels. Maybe within 50 years, the area will have become carbon-neutral, but many organisms will still be extinct.
It would be much more rational to keep using (and taxing) fossil fuels and use the bilions of euro's wasted on first-generation biofuels to pay for real progress, instead of subsidising agriculture.
If that kind of money were to be invested in massive (off-shore) wind farms (and further research), THAT would make a difference.

Stan Peterson

@Harvey D,

Your prognosis to convert to substitute electricity for fossil for both transport and HVAC is most sage and apt.

The US has been doing exactly this for about thirty years and accelerating the substitution. Such is the power of Schlumpeter's Creative Destruction. It is never easy to adapt, but modern free enterprise does do that rolling adaptation.

If you look at US energy consumption by sector, from a source such as the EIA, you will see HVAC energy is essentially flat for all fossil sources for the the last thirty years and the only source for increase in the increasing residential and commercial housing stock is electricity.

Old buildings continue to use old energy sources and the stock of old properties is replaced only slowly. But new buildings are almost exclusively electric.

Just like the conversion to electricity in US industry including heavy industry such as fro example, the almost completed conversion to electric steel making.

Only the transportation sector is increasing the use of liquid hydrocarbons. The reason? We all know that valid substitutes were not available; and are only now emerging from the engineers and scientists. But that flood is building now too.

All we need is to build the electrical generation we need. The crazies will be happy with their token wind and other renewable sources. These sources will add up to next to nothing. However, A new LAST generation of fission is ready to bridge the gap, until Fusion arrives to permanently answer the problem. It is being orderd in increasing numbers. That is why the problem is solved, even if the answer is not yet apparent for a decade or slightly more.

Harvey D


I agree with you that USA and parts of Canada have begun the transition to an electrified society.

However, we have to accellerate the pace and do much more. Too many residences and commercial buildings are still using fossil fuels for heating and older low efficiency AC units. Too many power generating plants still use dirty coal.

We all know how little has been done to electrify ground transportation.

Diversified low pollution power sources such as Hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, waves, and up-to-date larger nuclear plants (100+) could supply all the energy required for an electrified society without building more dirty coal fired power plants.

Cost is relative to what is being counted. The real (total) cost of all the damages created by ICE vehicles/machines and coal fired power plants is never published. If so, it would be so high that it would make the current (oil) wars cost look very small.

Henry Gibson

It is now quite easy to build a coal burning power plant that has no emissions at all. Nuclear heat is very cheap; reactors can be built that use old fuel rods(CANDU) so the price of fuel is zero for several years. The capital cost is relatively high. No water is actually needed, as air cooling can be used. A large model airplane type engine can be fitted with a fan and a generator; in order to, make an electric car have infinite range during emergency long trips. The Oasis battery from FireFly will be available in six months and is cheap enough for a 40 mile range, and a high voltage bipolar version would reduce the weight by a third or more.(SEE EFFPOWER and ATRAVERDA). Existing front wheel drive vehicles can be retrofitted with batteries and motors for operation in city and freeway traffic jams. A single Oasis battery would give 6 miles of travel in a jam and be ready for more miles with a few moments of operation of the engine or regenerative braking down hill. The wheel motor/generators can charge the battery while the engine is driving the car at any relatively high speed. Electronic actuated motors allow for power generation at almost any speed as well as wear-free braking. For a very long hill excess eletricity could be dissipated in simple electric heating elements far away from the tires. Passenger railway cars generated electricity for lights and heating this way when pulled by steam locomotives. If every Prius sold were converted to plug in hybrid, it would save more gas at lower cost than all the bioethanol... If the full truth were told Hydrogen fuel and fuel cells for automobiles would have their funding cut with even stronger reasons. All this funding would be better spent subsidising cheaper ways to build ZEBRA batteries that can be even as light weight as many L-ion batteries and far less prone to ignite and are well tested in cars lorries and buses..HG...


electricity is NOT fuel!

Most nations do not have solar power and wind power even in Germany is intermittent. I am all for eco technology and sustainable energy generation. However it is naive to think you will solve transport's energy requirements with eco power stations or ethanol.

Most of the power generation in the world is fossile fuel. Even the best and newest coal fired stations emit 1kg of CO2 per KWh.

That means a small two seat car like a Tesla emits 140g/km CO2 compared to it's petrol sister Lotus Elise 163g/km CO2

Crops like jatropha and biomass from Elephant grass is the way ahead for countries with sunny climates and a need to prevent soil errosion such as sub saharan Africa. Both plants do not destroy the soil - quite the opposite they improve it so that food crops like sorgum to be grown alongside - so fuel and food for local populace.

Solar, wind, hydro all have their place - but they cost and have infrastructure and maintenance issues as well. Silicon prices are through the roof due solar and computer chip requirements.

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