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.
Jörn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance. How Green Are Biofuels? Science 4 January 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 - 44 DOI: 10.1126/science.1153103