Back in February 2008, the UK government, or more precisely the Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, ordered a review of the UK's biofuel targets and their global impact. This was prompted by the steep rise in global food prices. The review was carried out by a panel of government experts chaired by the head of the Renewable Fuels Agency, Professor Ed Gallagher. The report is being published today (Friday 27th June) and is expected to initiate a re-evaluation of the targets for biofuels use set by both the UK and the EU. The reason for this is the realisation that the rush to exploit biofuels has been a significant factor in the increase in global food prices. The IMF has conservatively estimated that biofuels have contributed 20% to 30% of the recent global food price rises. The U.S., which is a major biofuels market, using more than a third of its maize production to manufacture ethanol, claimed that biofuels contributed a mere 3% to food price rises, although this figure is unrepresentative and is widely disbelieved.
Here in the UK, the government has already set its first national target. Since April 2008, all petrol and diesel has to contain 2.5% biofuels. The next target is set for 2010 and will mean that all petrol and diesel will have to contain 5% biofuels. The EU is busy setting its own targets for Europe, and has proposed that by 2010 all petrol and diesel will contain 10% biofuels. Now hopefully these targets will be revisited and revised in line with the findings of this report.
If these figures are amended downwards, it will leave European countries with a dilemma; the EU is committed to reducing its carbon emissions and the biofuels component was a major part of this strategy. The report does say that second generation biofuels that are made from non-food crops could be a better solution, as long as food crops are not displaced to grow them. How and where these non-food plants will be grown remains a challenge. The vast amounts of plants required to produce biofuels requires a great deal of land and water, commodities that are becoming increasingly scarce as the world's population grows. The report raises many questions, with I suspect, unsatisfactory answers. What is needed is genuine research into the short-term and long-term impact of biofuels uptake on food production, de-forestation and human displacement and exploitation. The biofuels industry cannot be allowed to regulate itself; market forces cannot protect the Earth or its people. A regulatory framework that can monitor and control the biofuels industry has to be introduced. There has to be some form of legislation in place to enforce policies to protect the world's food supply, not just the West's food supply. I would go further and suggest we need legislation to protect the world's forests too. The importance of the world's forests in the fight against climate change must not be underestimated.
What I find amazing is that it took a review by a panel of experts to work out that if Western governments divert massive amounts of food crops to use in the manufacture of biofuels, it will inevitably lead to less food available for human consumption which will lead to higher prices, which will hurt the world's poorest communities the most. The problem for our political leaders is not that an additional 100 million people are now short of food, the problem is that the rise in global food prices has now affected the price of food in our supermarkets. When our own people start to feel the pain of higher food prices, our government will take action. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think no matter how big the world stage politicians play on, their only real concerns are the voters back home. Unfortunately the majority of the ‘voters back home' still have not grasped the significance of climate change and are more concerned about their lifestyles than taking any steps to reduce their own impact on the environment.