UK science academy calls for regulation rethink to counter biofuels that raise greenhouse gas emissions

Simplistic policies are encouraging biofuels that don’t cut greenhouse gases, the UK’s Royal Society has warned in a new report. 

Not all biofuels are equally good at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, so rewarding the best should be a priority, explained John Pickett, who chaired the study. Yet current transport policies - such as the EU biofuels directive and the UK’s renewable transport fuel obligation (RTFO) - only demand more transport fuel from renewable resources. ’Indiscriminately increasing the amount of biofuels we are using may not automatically lead to the best reductions in emissions,’ said Pickett. 

Instead, the report - Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges - favours policies that promote fuels with the lowest emissions by, for example, including greenhouse gas reduction incentives and certifying fuels for their emissions savings. 

The recommendations came on the same day that EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted that the EU had not forseen the social and environmental problems caused by its own biofuels targets - such as rising food prices and deforestation. ’We have to have criteria for sustainability,’ he said.

But that could be easier said than done, the Royal Society says. ’How we develop these "sustainability criteria" in itself requires research,’ commented report co-author Dianna Bowles, who works on novel agricultural products at the University of York. 

Hard choices 

Jeremy Woods, at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, said that ethanol from UK-sourced wheat, for example, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anything from 10 to 80 per cent. The vast uncertainty simply reflected different agricultural practices and crop yields.   

And it is not just agricultural processing that needs to be considered: effects on deforestation; food shortages; local climate; soil quality; distribution costs; the trade impacts of biofuel imports; and other unexpected variables could all affect the merits of any one biofuel process. 

In other words, said Pickett, biofuel policy-makers are walking a thin line between making overly complex regulations, too costly and slow to research and implement - or being too simple, and so encouraging the wrong biofuels. Focusing on greenhouse gas reductions would be a good target to start with, but ’we must not create new environmental or social problems in our efforts to deal with climate change,’ he said. 

International concern 

The UK’s RTFO, whose first incarnation comes into force in April 2008, requires that 5 per cent of UK fuel comes from a renewable source by 2010. It is developing a carbon reporting and sustainability certification scheme. ’The RTFO is a reasonable start,’ said Pickett. ’But 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.’ 

Meanwhile, an OECD official has warned that even governments aware of the weaknesses of their biofuel policies - for example, the trade barriers that have been set up by Europe and the US - might now find it hard to backtrack on them. Speaking at the Reuters Global Agriculture and Biofuel Summit in Paris,  Leok Boonekamp, a division head in the OECD’s Agro-food Trade and Markets Division, said, ’I’m not very optimistic that because we say that the policies are bad and wasteful that governments will go away and do something else.’ 

Richard Van Noorden

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