UK government changes approach on biofuels

The UK will cautiously proceed with increasing the use of biofuels, following the conclusions of a review by a leading scientist.

Uchenna Izundu
International Editor

LONDON, July 11 -- The UK will cautiously proceed with increasing the use of biofuels, following the conclusions of a review by a leading scientist.

The report by Ed Gallagher urged that production of biofuels must be sustainable or it could seriously jeopardize land use, boost greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially contribute to rising food prices.

Biofuel production should focus on idle and marginal land and use second-generation biofuels, which use waste parts of plants for energy, to minimize competition with food production, according to the review.

Under the UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which came into effect in April, 2.5% of fuel sale volumes must be from biofuels (OGJ Online, Apr. 15, 2008). The level of the obligation is due to rise to 3.75% in April 2009 and 5% in April 2010. Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, said the government would consult stakeholders about making changes later in the year.

However, the UK will also push for the European Union to ensure that its 10% renewable transport fuels target for 2020 is conditioned upon sustainability and without significant impacts on food prices.

The government said it would "press that the sustainability criteria for biofuels, currently being negotiated, should address indirect, as well as direct, effects on land use."

Critics have called for a moratorium on biofuels because they are unsustainable and are contributing to higher food prices, but Gallager rejected this approach arguing that it would "reduce the ability of the biofuels industry to invest in new technologies or transform the sourcing of its feedstock to the more-sustainable supplies necessary to create a truly sustainable industry."

Clare Wenner, head of transport biofuels at the Renewable Energy Association, said that proposals did not give the industry consistent, reliable, and long-term targets. "However, no progress will be made unless there is investment in production and research."

Alwyn Hughes, chief executive of Ensus, which is building the largest biorefinery in northeast England, was "concerned" at the government's change in approach to existing commitments under the RTFO.

"We think this is unnecessary when sustainable production can already be achieved," Hughes said. "Such a move would only serve to jeopardize the industry's ability to deliver the substantial benefits that are possible. Furthermore this runs the risk of frightening off the very investment in renewable energy that the government is relying on to meet [its] own climate change targets."

But environmentalists urged the government to reconsider its biofuels obligation altogether and focus on fuel efficiency because of the impact on food prices.

Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn said: "It is clearer than ever that we need to break our dependence on oil. To tackle climate change we will need to develop new, cleaner fuels—but that doesn't mean pushing forward indiscriminately on biofuels that may do more harm than good."

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