Leading environmental and development groups attack government's biofuel plans

Last edited 24 March 2008 at 10:34am

NGOs echo words of top DEFRA scientist and demand biofuel obligation be postponed

24 March, 2008

A coalition of some of Britain's biggest environmental and development groups have sent a joint letter (1) to Government warning that the UK's biofuel policy risks doing more harm than good in the fight against climate change and global poverty.

The intervention intensifies pressure on the Government following a BBC interview in which Professor Bob Watson, DEFRA's chief scientific advisor, cast serious doubt on the plans and insisted that it would be "insane" if the policy ended up having the opposite effect to the one intended. (2)

In a letter to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, the groups - including Oxfam, CAFOD, RSPB, IIED, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (3) - criticise the upcoming Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) and assert that "there is a very real risk that the RTFO will make climate change worse, not better."

The organisations are demanding that ministers delay the introduction of this legislation, which would see biofuels pumped into every tank in the country from April 15th 2008.

The letter goes on to explain further problems connected to the production of biofuels. These include spiraling food prices in the developing world, increases in the incidence of land conflicts and human rights abuses, the destruction of tropical forests, savannah and grasslands for crop cultivation and the need for high levels of public investment to make biofuels economically viable.

The groups demand that the legislation is postponed until safeguards are put in place to protect against these negative impacts. A Government led review into biofuels was announced only this month and the new, Treasury-commissioned King Review of low carbon cars suggests that to deliver meaningful emissions reductions the focus of policy should be shifted away from biofuels and towards engine efficiency.

The letter claims that given these emerging views it would be illogical for ministers to press ahead at this moment in time. (4)

Doug Parr, Greenpeace's Chief Scientific Adviser said: "From next month British motorists will be forced to pump biofuels into their tanks with no way of knowing if the so-called green fuels they're using are actually worse for the climate than regular fossil fuels. For one of the Government's top scientists to describe these plans as potentially insane suggests that something has gone seriously wrong here. The targets should be scrapped. Pressing ahead regardless of the consequences for the climate would be incredibly reckless."

Abigail Bunker, Agriculture Policy Officer of The RSPB said: "Biofuels threaten untold damage to unique wildlife habitats across the world. Their production is already causing the destruction of rainforest, peatlands and grasslands and the release of huge amounts of carbon stored by trees and soil. Thousands of people last week urged the government to shelve its plans to force us to buy more biofuel. Ministers must heed those pleas not bulldoze through more biofuel use."

Kenneth Richter, Biofuels Campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: "It would be irresponsible to press ahead with volume targets for biofuels in the UK and the EU while there is no scientific consensus about their climate impacts and at a time when experts are still scratching their heads about how to adequately safeguard against their potentially catastrophic impacts on people and the environment."

Robert Bailey, Oxfam Biofuels Policy Lead said: "The RTFO should be delayed until the Government can guarantee that the UK's biofuels will neither make climate change worse, nor come at the expense of the environment and the livelihoods of people in developing countries."

George Gelber, Head of Public Policy at CAFOD said: "The government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington has warned about the impacts of biofuels on food security, just at a time when the world's poorest people are faced with rocketing prices of their basic foods. In addition, recent reports doubt the ability of biofuels to reduce greenhouse gases. The government needs to look before it leaps in committing to biofuels"


Recent scientific evidence has shown that many biofuels (such as those made from palm oil grown on newly deforested land) are actually more damaging to the climate than their fossil fuel equivalents. Meanwhile using seemingly innocuous crops (like oilseed rape, grown far from rainforests) may not be a solution either. As the demand for oil produced from these crops will continue for other purposes like food, it means that the industry will jut replace them increasing the imports of other crops such as palm oil. This crop is heavily linked with deforestation in Indonesia which creates massive greenhouse gas emissions.


(1) The full text of the letter can be read at online.

(2) Bob Watson was interviewed by the BBC's environmental analyst Roger Harrabin on the Today Programme, Monday 24th March 2008

(3) IIED: International Institute for Environment and Development; CAFOD: Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. One World and Operation Noah are also signatories.

(4) The study will be conducted by the UK's new Renewable Fuels Agency and will look both at the immediate impact of biofuels and at so-called "indirect effects". www.gnn.gov.uk/Content/Detail.asp?...


Greenpeace: James Turner - 07766 165323

Oxfam: Lucy Brincombe - 07786 110054

Friends of the Earth: Kenneth Richter - 020 7566 1671

RSPB: Abi Bunker - 01767 693438

CAFOD: Fiona Callister - 020 7095 5558

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