Something that many of us in the environmental field have known for a while now is at long last being acknowledged by the scientific community. Biofuels, often touted as the answer to our transport fuel problems, can cause more harm to the environment and to some of the world’s poorest communities than they do good. The EU, China and the USA especially have been promoting the uptake of biofuels as a replacement to petroleum based fuels for automotive transport in recent years. They have all set national targets within specific timeframes for increased biofuel use.
This rush to embrace biofuels has created a whole raft of environmental and social problems, ranging from deforestation to farm worker displacement to higher food prices to increased carbon emissions. Now, the scientific community is calling for a more cautionary approach to biofuels uptake. In their report “Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges” released yesterday, the Royal Society is calling on the UK government to put in place policies that will ensure biofuels uptake is genuinely benefiting the environment.
The heart of the issue is the wording of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which will come into force in April 2008. The RTFO requires 5% of all fuels sold in the UK to come from a renewable source by 2010. What the Royal Society wants to see instead, is a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By changing the target to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the way biofuels are produced will be more closely monitored, and will therefore be of far greater benefit to the environment.
The chairman of the Royal Society biofuels study, Professor John Pickett, 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… 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 Royal Society WebsiteThe report wants to see four main caveats attached to the use of biofuels as a means of reducing carbon emissions:
- There are many types of biofuels available at the moment, and they differ in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions they offer. Therefore, each biofuel must be individually evaluated for its overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
- The evaluation for each biofuel must look at the environmental and economic facets over the complete cycle, from seed to fuel
- The increasing use of biofuels will have a huge impact on land use, with an ensuing socio-economic effect on the local populations
- The evaluation must also take into account the global and regional effects. (Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges)