Royal Society warns of biofuel dangers

Posted: 15 January 2008

Biofuels risk failing to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transport and could even be environmentally damaging unless the Government puts the right policies in place, warns a new Royal Society report

The report on Sustainable Biofuels cautions that the UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which comes into force in April 2008, does not necessarily encourage the use of the types of biofuels with the best greenhouse gas savings. This is because, although the Obligation requires fuel suppliers to ensure that five per cent of all UK fuels sold are from a renewable source by 2010, it does not contain a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.The RTFO Directive also fails to include a greenhouse gas target. As a result, it will do more for economic development and energy security than combating climate change, the study says.

Welcoming the report, Friends of the Earth's Biofuels Campaigner, Hannah Griffiths, said: "When the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation comes into force, the UK's use of biofuels is likely to accelerate climate change and lead to social and environmental devastation around the world. Consumers will have no way of distinguishing between good and bad biofuels and biofuel companies will not be held to account for the negative impacts of their products. The Government must put the obligation on hold until it can guarantee that only biofuels that lead to significant greenhouse gas savings without causing social and environmental destruction will count towards it."

Inefficietn biofuels Professor John Pickett, who chaired the study, said: "Biofuels could play an important role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport both here and globally. Cars, lorries and domestic air travel are responsible for a massive 25 per cent of all the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and this figure is growing faster than for any other sector."

"The Government must ensure that the RTFO promotes fuels with the lowest emissions by, for example, setting a greenhouse gas reduction target. This will help encourage the improvement of existing fuels and accelerate the development of new ones. Without a target we risk missing important opportunities to stimulate exciting innovations that will help us cut our spiralling transport emissions."

The report also recommends that the RTFO be extended for 20 years in order to stimulate the kind of long term investment necessary to foster a strong UK biofuels industry. It warns that without the right support, including of the research and development community, there is a risk that we will miss out on developing the biofuels that could bring greater benefits and that we could become locked in to using inefficient biofuels.

John Pickett said: "In designing policies and incentives to encourage investment in and the use of biofuels it is important to remember that one biofuel is not the same as another. The greenhouse gas savings of each depends on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used. So, indiscriminately increasing the amount of biofuels we are using may not automatically lead to the best reductions in emissions."

No silver bullet

The report calls for biofuels to be assessed and certified for the greenhouse gas savings they will deliver, as well as their positive and negative social and environmental impacts.

John Pickett said the UK was leading the way internationally by developing carbon and sustainability reporting for biofuels as part of the RTFO. But, he added, "We must not create new environmental or social problems in our efforts to deal with climate change. Indeed, while the RTFO is a reasonable start, unless certification is applied to the production of all biofuels and is a system used by all countries we will merely displace rather than remedy the potentially negative effects of these fuels."

The report says that biofuels are not the silver bullet for meeting the rising demand for transport while tackling emissions. Delivering a sustainable transport system will require combining biofuels with other developments including the improved design of vehicles and engines, increased use of public transport and better urban and rural planning to encourage, for example, walking and the use of bicycles.

A video interview with Professor John Pickett can be seen here