Rethink urged on biofuel targets

From next month, UK government policy demands inclusion of biofuels into fuel at the pumps. The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is to introduce 2.5% biofuels at the pumps from April 2008. But those calling for a halt on targets, including the EU targets for inclusion of 5.75% biofuels in road fuel by 2010 and 10% by 2020, now include not just environmental and development pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Oxfam, but the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, and the UK’s chief environmental scientist Professor Robert Watson. So what are the reasons behind all the criticism of biofuel targets?

The EU has led the way in setting targets for use of biofuels in a bid to cut carbon emissions to combat climate change. But Professor Watson, speaking on BBC Radio 4, says that biofuel policy in the EU and UK may have run ahead of the science. While some scientists believe that biofuels are sustainable, other scientists and commentators fear the impact on food prices and deforestation, and recent articles from US scientists (reported in the second half of this previous blog article) argue that the carbon debt incurred from carbon released from ploughing virgin soil often outweighs any potential carbon saving from the biofuels.

A report from Britain’s Royal Society released early in 2008 concluded that policies setting targets for biofuel use "will do more for economic development and energy security than combating climate change".

Biofuels could play an important role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport, both in Britain and globally," said Professor John Pickett from Rothamsted Research, who chaired the Royal Society’s study. "But it would be disastrous if biofuel production made further inroads into biological diversity and natural ecosystems. We must not create new environmental or social problems in our efforts to deal with climate change." 

A report published in January by the Environmental Audit Committee of UK MP’s called for abandonment of EU biofuel targets due to likely damage to the environment. The report concluded that the Government and EU should not have pursued targets for biofuel use in the absence of robust sustainability standards, and mechanisms to prevent damaging land use. It also says that they have have been "misguided" in prioritising biofuels for road transport when it is much more efficient under current technology to use them for heating and cooling. The EU and the UK government should concentrate on the use of "sustainable" biofuels such as waste vegetable oil and the development of more efficient biofuel technologies, it adds. (The EAC report can be downloaded here).

The EU does seem to have moved too quickly in setting targets for biofuel use in road fuels, without fully assessing all the implications for land use and food prices, or setting robust criteria for sustainability. The EU’s Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has acknowledged this in saying that the 5% target by 2010 should only be reached if the biofuels could be proved to be sustainably produced. But while some governments appear to have pushed the biofuel agenda for reasons that may be more about politics and economics than the environment, we must be careful that a backlash against biofuel does not hamper the development of later generations of bioenergy, produced from lignocellulose or algae. More investment in research into better biofuel technology may lead to far more sustainable and efficient biofuels than those in production today.

"What we have to do is to undertake research and development in such a way that we can unlock the tremendous potential that nature has provided us with in terms of getting enzymes to degrade cellulose and make ethanol," said Professor Dianna Bowles from the University of York, another member of the Royal Society’s study group.

But this research must go together with study of both environmental and social impacts, and Dr Jeremy Woods of Imperial College London suggests establishing some sort of certification scheme for sustainable production. (Certification was one of the subjects discussed at last years ‘Bioenegy Conference 2007’ organized by the Renewable Energy Association.) Dr Woods gives the example of African nations such as Tanzania, where various parties including the government, local entrepreneurs and multinational companies are exploring the potential of biofuel crops.

"Tanzania is quite likely to start indigenous biofuel production," he told the BBC, "and if they do it in a good way, they could improve food production and preserve biodiversity."

CABI’s Biofuels Abstracts database subset has recently been expanded, and now includes over 23,000 bibliographic records including production, processing and policy aspects of bioenergy. A small sample of the records relating to sustainability is given below. CAB Abstracts also carries thousands of records on carbon emissions and sequestration in different types of land use. This will be one of the subjects featured in a new CABI internet resource on man’s impact on the environment, to be launched in a months time. Watch this space!

Developments in EU biofuels policy related to sustainability issues: overview and outlook.
Londo, M. , Deurwaarder, E. / Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining, 2007, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 292-302, 37 ref.

In the current debate on present and future biofuels policy, sustainability issues play an important role. In this perspective, we discuss a number of factors in the framing of the biofuels sustainability debate, and describe their role over the last 25 years or so in which biofuels have been on the political agenda. Our first conclusion is that biofuels policy is related to several underlying objectives, such as climate change, security of supply and other drivers. Therefore, the policy will structurally need to be monitored in its impacts, in order to keep these impacts in concordance with these objectives. In the long term, biofuels policy might be substituted by instruments that more directly relate to the objectives. Second, current sustainability issues concerning biofuels relate to either the production chain or to the regional system in which biofuels compete for land. Finding suitable indicators and setting up monitoring schemes are key challenges. Furthermore, a safeguarding scheme needs to meet two conflicting requirements: on the one hand it is important to implement it over many regions and many sectors (including non-energy), but on the other hand the problem requires implementation in the short term. Starting with monitoring only may cause an issue of legitimacy. Finally, we propose some elements for a robust development strategy. This includes pushing forward with a sustainability safeguarding scheme, within the given constraints. During the start-up period of such schemes, non-certified biofuels and feedstock might be discouraged, simultaneously stimulating production initiatives operating under certification.

Carving out policy space for sustainability in biofuel production.
Marshall, L. / Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, 2007, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 183-196, 41 ref.

This article examines policy intervention that will address biofuel sustainability. Ensuring that feedstock production is sustainable and that biofuels provide the social and environmental benefits that are often attributed to them will require a carefully designed portfolio of agricultural, forestry, energy, and trade policies related to biofuels and feedstock production. Despite the difficulties associated with development and application of such policies, they should be in place before further policy incentive is provided for expansion of biofuel industries.

Boundless biofuels? Between environmental sustainability and vulnerability.
Mol, A. P. J. / Sociologia Ruralis, 2007, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 297-315, 47 ref.

Biofuels currently appear to be one of the major controversies in the agriculture/environment nexus, not unlike genetically modified organisms. While some countries (such as Brazil) have for quite some time supported successful large-scale programmes to improve the production and consumption of biofuels, policy-makers and research institutions in most developed and developing countries have only recently turned their attention to biofuels. Threat of climate change, new markets for agricultural output, reduced dependencies on OPEC countries and high fossil fuel prices are driving this development. But opposition to biofuels is growing, pointing at the various vulnerabilities – not in the least for developing countries – that come along with large-scale ‘energy’ plantations. Against this background this article analyses the sustainability and vulnerability of biofuels, from the perspective of a sociology of networks and flows. Current biofuel developments should be understood in terms of the emergence of a global integrated biofuel network, where environmental sustainabilities are more easily accommodated than vulnerabilities for marginal and peripheral groups and countries, irrespective of what policy-makers and biofuel advocates tell us.

Forecasting the magnitude of sustainable biofeedstock supplies: the challenges and the rewards.
Graham, R. L. / Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining, 2007, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp.
255-263, 25 ref.

Forecasting the magnitude of sustainable biofeedstock supplies is challenging because of (1) myriad potential feedstock types and their management; (2) the need to account for the spatial variation of both the supplies and their environmental and economic consequences; and (3) the inherent challenges of optimizing across economic and environmental considerations. Over the last two decades, US biomass forecasts have become increasingly complex and sensitive to environmental and economic considerations; however, more model development and research is needed. In particular, the landscape and regional tradeoffs of differing biofeedstock supplies need to be addressed, especially with regard to water quality concerns and wildlife/biodiversity. Feedstock assessments need to be done in the context of the direction of land-use change induced by biofeedstock production; they need to take into consideration both the starting environmental and economic conditions before the land was used to supply biofeedstocks and the probable future conditions that would result in the absence of biofeedstock production. To evaluate sustainability, process-oriented models need to be coupled or used to inform sector models and more work needs to be done on developing environmental metrics that are useful for evaluating economic and environmental tradeoffs. These challenges are exciting and worthwhile as they will enable the bioenergy industry to capture the environmental and social benefits of biofeedstock production and reduce risks.

Bioenergy and sustainable development?
Sagar, A. D. , Kartha, S. / Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2007, Vol. 32, pp. 131-167, 198 ref.

Traditional biomass remains the dominant contributor to the energy supply of a large number of developing countries, where it serves the household energy needs of over a third of humanity in traditional cookstoves or open fires. Efforts to reduce the enormous human health, socioeconomic, and environmental impacts by shifting to cleaner cookstoves and cleaner biomass-derived fuels have had some success, but much more needs to be done, possibly including the expanded use of fossil-derived fuels. Concurrently, biomass is rapidly expanding as a commercial energy source, especially for transport fuels. Bioenergy can positively contribute to climate goals and rural livelihoods; however, if not implemented carefully, it could exacerbate degradation of land, water bodies, and ecosystems; reduce food security; and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For large-scale commercial biofuels to contribute to sustainable development will require agriculturally sustainable methods and markets that provide enhanced livelihood opportunities and equitable terms of trade. The challenge lies in translating the opportunity into reality.

One thought on “Rethink urged on biofuel targets

  1. Nick Water Coolers July 4, 2008 / 11:46 am

    The increase in biofuels would mean that the government would loose a lot of the rip-off tax they rob us of. As for any other objections, well think 100 years down the line – no more oil! Forward thinking is required which has escaped successive governments since political time began.

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