21 January 2008

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the British House of Commons released today a report, titled “Are biofuels sustainable?”, which questions the environmental benefits of the current EU biofuel policy. Although it recognizes that some biofuels are sustainable and can be used to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport, the report concludes that the UK Government and EU 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.

Most “first generation” biofuels—such as biodiesel or ethanol made from food crops—have a detrimental impact on the environment overall, states the report. In addition, most biofuels are deemed not to be an effective use of bioenergy resources, in terms either of cutting greenhouse gas emissions or value-for-money.

A common misconception of biofuels is that they are “carbon neutral”, i.e. that they absorb as much carbon in their growing as they release when they are burned as fuel, points out the report. However, a range of additional emissions have to be considered when calculating the actual amount of carbon they might save, including:

  • emissions from agriculture such as from machinery usage and soil disturbance (which can release large volumes of carbon);
  • nitrous oxide (N2O, a potent greenhouse gas) emissions from fertilizer application;
  • emissions from the energy used to convert the feedstock into a liquid fuel; and
  • transport of either the feedstock, or the biofuel, to its point of use.

In addition, there may also be indirect emissions associated with a biofuel, especially if nonagricultural land is used to grow the feedstock. For example, if forest is cut down to grow biofuels it would take between 50 and 100 years for the biofuels to compensate for the initial release of carbon.

Therefore, the current EU policy must be changed to ensure that sustainable bioenergy resources maximize their potential to generate energy for the lowest possible GHG emissions. In general biofuels produced from conventional crops should no longer receive support from the Government, said EAC. Instead the Government should concentrate on the development of more efficient biofuel technologies that might have a sustainable role in the future. Without these measures, some biofuels could lead to environmental damage in the UK and the destruction of environmentally crucial rainforests.

The EAC calls for a moratorium on current biofuel targets until technology improves, robust mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change are developed, and international sustainability standards are agreed. The report also concluded 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 GHG 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.

Advanced “second generation” biofuels may have an important role in the future, but these technologies are some years away. The UK Government should support their development by creating a stable investment climate out to 2020, recommends the report.

The publication of the report comes shortly before the expected announcement of the EU Renewables Directive proposal to increase the use of biofuels, with a target of 10% of transport fuel to be supplied by renewable sources by 2020.

Source: House of Commons (Press release | Report vol. I | Report vol. II)