EU biofuels policy thrown into doubt as commissioner admits: targets may be missed

Last edited 14 January 2008 at 4:57pm
14 January, 2008

The environmental credentials of "first generation" biofuels were today thrown into serious doubt after the European commissioner, DEFRA's chief scientist and the Royal Society all expressed concern over their sustainability and effectiveness.

Both the EU and United Kingdom government have set targets for the use of biofuels, and the industry is booming despite an absence of universally agreed sustainability criteria. A recent Greenpeace report showed how the production of palm oil, an emerging source of biofuel, is leading to rainforest destruction in Indonesia and a massive increase in the region's C02 emissions (1). This means that certain types of biofuels could be worse than useless in combating climate change.

Today the image of biofuels came under scrutiny from three different sources:

  • The Royal Society criticised a new piece of UK legislation - the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) - which will require all transport fuels to contain 5 per cent biofuel by 2010. Their new report (2) warns that biofuels risk failing to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transport and could even be environmentally damaging without strict government oversight. It complains that the legislation does not include an explicit target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said it would be better to miss the EU's own target (a 10 per cent biofuel "mix" by 2020) than achieve it by harming the poor or damaging the environment. Dimas told the BBC Today programme "We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were. So we have to move very carefully".
  • DEFRA's chief scientist, Professor Bob Watson, also told the BBC Today programme "We should not use biofuels if it leads to other environmental and social problems". He went on to describe any policy that exacerbates the problem it was designed to address - a reference to UK biofuel policy - as "ridiculous".

Reacting to the news, Greenpeace Executive Director John Sauven said: "The dangers of mass biofuel production need to be taken seriously because as things stand biofuels could be worse than useless at combating climate change. But UK government targets mean that soon motorists will be forced to pump these fuels into their tanks, with no way of knowing where they're coming from. We need to be sure that when we fill up we are not trashing the world's rainforests. A better, quicker solution would be to make our cars far more fuel efficient."



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