'Green fuels' could be bad for the planet, say environmental and development groups

Last edited 20 March 2007 at 8:00am
20 March, 2007

A misjudged push for 'green' fuels could instead damage the climate and trash rainforests, according to the UK's largest environmental and development groups today.

Biofuels - which are similar to petrol but less environmentally damaging because they are made from crops and wastes - could play an important role in tackling global warming. But, say bosses from the RSPB, WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth, the government's dash for biofuels is ill thought out, lacks appropriate safeguards and could be creating more problems than it solves.

The government proposal - known as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) - could, in its present form, see businesses producing biofuels by destroying rainforests and wetlands, not only threatening endangered habitats and species but also releasing far more carbon into the atmosphere than could ever hope to be saved by replacing fossil fuels.

The groups are demanding the obligation is tightened up so that biofuel producers must meet minimum greenhouse gas and sustainability standards, with environmental audits of the whole life-cycle of the fuels, from growing the crop to transporting it to the pump.

Dr Douglas Parr, Chief Scientist at Greenpeace, said: "In its current form, this proposal is monumentally complacent. It could see biofuel production wrecking the climate rather than help it. The Government must sort out this botched plan or risk losing the value that biofuels can offer."

Phil Bloomer, Oxfam's Director of Campaigns & Policy, said "Biofuels could offer a way out of poverty for poor farmers and agricultural workers around the world. However, under this proposal they may do more harm than good, as deforestation is associated with land-grabbing, human rights abuses and deepening poverty. The government must take the lead in designing policies which ensure that biofuels do not come at the expense of vulnerable people's livelihoods."

Mark Avery, Director of Conservation at the RSPB, said "This proposal threatens to accelerate the destruction of some of the world's most precious habitats and wildlife. Without environmental standards, biofuels will be little more than a green con."

Adam Harrison, Food and Agriculture officer at WWF said: "The government's policy on biofuels is in danger of doing more harm than good. Without tough minimum standards, we risk escalating deforestation and even increasing our CO2 emissions."

Ed Matthew of Friends of the Earth, said: "It doesn't seem possible that the government could design a system for developing the biofuel industry that could actually make climate change worse but they seem to be managing it. Biofuels can be an important part of the solution to climate change but without rapid action from government to toughen up the standards the opportunity, and we may only have one, will be lost."

The group's full statement is:

The current political and business enthusiasm for renewable biofuels is understandable. This emerging industry could play an important role in tackling climate change. However, without appropriate safeguards, this flagship policy could have disastrous unintended consequences - actually increasing carbon emissions, intensifying deforestation and causing extensive negative social impacts.

We are concerned that Government's plans to promote biofuels through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), lack these precautions.

Greenhouse gas emissions savings from different biofuels vary widely and some can even result in an overall increase. The RTFO as proposed fails to distinguish between the biofuels that can contribute most to tackling climate change.

In addition, without strong, mandatory standards in place the RTFO will attract biofuels produced at the expense of forests, peat lands and natural grasslands in places such as Brazil and Indonesia. As well as being hugely important habitats, their destruction will add huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Making biodiesel from soy planted on cleared rainforest takes 200 years before it could be considered carbon neutral.

The expansion of tropical crops such as palm oil is also linked to the loss of indigenous peoples land rights, human rights abuse and the destruction of local communities' natural resources.

To gain our support, the RTFO must:

  • Ensure that biofuels meet strict externally audited, widely accepted and mandatory sustainability and greenhouse gas balance standards, including at least a 50 per cent saving on greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels, taking a whole life-cycle approach
  • Take account of the greenhouse gases caused by land-use change and forest clearance to grow biofuels so that where high carbon land-uses are lost, no saving is claimed.

Although additional measures may become necessary, with these safeguards in place, biofuels are much more likely to contribute to a reduction in emissions from the transport sector without damaging the environment.


For more information, contact:
Greenpeace press office on 020 7865 8255
Oxfam press office on 01865 472498
RSPB press office on 01767 681577
WWF press office on 01483 412388
Friends of the Earth press office on 020 7566 1649

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