Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Eighth Report

4  Land use


85. In this section we explore the resource implications of bioenergy generation in the UK. Again, these implications are difficult to quantify: some of those who submitted evidence to our inquiry used different data in different ways in support of opposing arguments. There is compelling evidence that using biomass crops to generate heat or electricity renders up significantly greater carbon savings per hectare than using land to grow crops for transport fuel. But we learned of key concerns about the cost of bioenergy in terms of the impact of growing energy crops on biodiversity and food security. These concerns preclude any straightforward choice of one source of bioenergy over another.

Domestic biomass production

86. UKPIA cites figures which show that the amount of CO2 saved per hectare is considerably greater for biomass (either single-rotation coppice or miscanthus) used to generate heat or electricity, than it is for either bioethanol or biodiesel. This is the basis for UKPIA's argument that producing liquid transport fuels is "not the best use of land in terms of reducing CO2 emissions" and that using the land to grow biomass crops for heat and electricity generation would be more effective.[106] The Carbon Trust, the Biosciences Federation and the Royal Society of Chemistry provide further evidence in support of this stance.[107]

87. Sheffield Hallam University and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership have shown that the greatest percentage carbon savings are gained through the gasification of biomass to produce electricity, and the burning of woodchip to generate heat.[108]

88. Evidence from the Biosciences Federation and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) categorically states that "Electricity or heat from short rotation coppice provides between three and six times the CO2 reduction per pound that can be obtained from … bioethanol from cereal crops".[109] Later in this section we note other factors that have to be taken into account when making a choice between biomass and biofuels.

Domestic biofuel production

89. The Government has announced a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) which requires transport fuel suppliers to ensure that by 2008-09, 2.5% of their sales come from renewable transport fuels. This target proportion is to increase to 3.75% in 2009-10 in order to achieve a renewable contribution of 5% by 2010-11, loosely in line with the EU Biofuels Directive.[110] We discuss the RTFO in detail below at paragraph 135.

90. Defra—supported by the NFU and the Biosciences Federation—claims that the UK could meet the 5% Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation target solely through domestic production. It states that "the UK has the land capacity to supply 5% of road fuels today … by 2050 the UK could produce as much as one third of its transport energy needs" from renewable sources.[111]

91. The NFU also argues that, for biodiesel in particular, the 5% RTFO target for 2010 is well within the current capacity of domestic production:

Diesel consumption estimates for 2010 suggest the requirement would be 1.15-1.35 billion litres. If this were to be produced solely from oilseed rape (OSR) this would require 2.4-2.8 million tonnes (680-800,000ha). Current UK OSR area of 557,000ha and set-aside area of 560,000ha could easily provide this.[112]

92. UK farmers are used to growing traditional annual crops such as wheat, sugar beet and oilseed rape. The UK is a net exporter of some 2.5-3 million tonnes of wheat every year.[113] As these crops are also used as feedstock for the biofuel industry, the NFU argues that UK farmers are ideally placed to provide energy crops, without any need to acquire new specialist machinery, skills or knowledge.[114]

93. The UK is currently lagging behind some other EU countries in biofuel production, only managing to make up around 0.24% of its fuel supply from biofuels.[115] Arguing that the UK is not optimising its potential as a biofuels producer, British Sugar cites Defra's own figures:

the UK has a total of 5.8 million hectares of land under arable production, with an additional 0.6 million hectares under set-aside. If just 10% of this combined total were reserved for energy crops, (a reasonable long-term target) then an additional 640,000 hectares could be made available, generating another 2 million tonnes of bioethanol.[116]

94. A recent Committee visit to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris highlighted the considerable resource implications of a substantial commitment to 'first generation' fuel from energy crops. The OECD estimates that, in order for first generation biofuels to provide 10% of the fuel, only 3% of the area in southern countries such as Brazil would be required. But in most OECD countries around 30-50% of the available crop area would be needed.[117] This suggests that there may be serious global land-use implications if the Government increases the 5% RTFO target and expects first generation biofuels to meet the increasing demand.


95. In addition to the potential carbon savings from energy crops, there are other sustainability and environmental considerations to be taken into account in making a decision on the most appropriate source of bioenergy; biodiversity a key factor. English Nature states that uncropped set-aside land supports a greater degree of biodiversity than intensively cropped arable land. It expresses concern that increased use of set-aside land for domestic biofuel production could result in loss of biodiversity. English Nature goes on to say that biomass crops such as short-rotation coppice willow show higher levels of biodiversity in comparison with intensive arable and grassland crops.[118] This argument is supported by the RSPB, although the RSPB acknowledges that little is known about the impact on biodiversity of other biomass crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass.[119]

96. Despite the clear advantages of short rotation coppice (SRC), both in terms of carbon savings and biodiversity implications, the NFU, Biosciences Federation and Royal Society of Chemistry all point out that SRC is less favourable from a financial perspective, being costly to establish and providing no output for the first four years.[120]

97. English Nature concludes that increasing energy crop production would have a significant effect on UK land use, and that the possible environmental impacts of this—such as biodiversity loss, and increases in pesticide and nutrient consumption—need to be considered before any programme of expansion is developed.[121]

Food security

98. Another important consideration in any discussion of the comparative merits of different sources of bioenergy is the impact of converting agricultural land in the UK from food to energy crop production. The Food and Drink Federation raises concerns that financial incentives to encourage the development of biofuel production could adversely affect the food industry by "indirectly disrupt[ing] agricultural commodity markets", leading to shortages of agricultural raw materials and increased costs for UK food manufacturers.[122] These concerns are reinforced by the Margarine & Spreads Association, whose main edible oil feedstocks, such as oilseed rape, are the same feedstocks used by biodiesel producers. The Association puts the other side of the argument advanced by the NFU (see above at paragraph 91): producing enough biodiesel to meet the 5% target set by the RTFO would result in a shortfall in supply, so driving up prices and consequently increasing imports.[123]

99. The Margarine & Spreads Association cites research which suggests that there is insufficient set-aside land available in the EU to meet the RTFO target through domestic production. Consequently, if the target is to be met through internal production, some arable land currently used for food production would have to be used to grow energy crops.[124]

100. The NFU admits that meeting the 5% RTFO target for biodiesel inclusion through domestic production will have an impact on the supply of oil-seed rape currently available for food production. However, it states that:

Production of food crops will not be adversely affected; movement into energy cropping will remove some of the UK's exportable surplus and will help to create a more balanced market. The crops used for biofuels are mainly dual purpose and so can be used for fuel or food.[125]

101. The advantages of 'dual-functionality' of crops—whereby a single crop could provide both food and biomass—were highlighted in submissions to our inquiry. The Renewable Energy Association told us that "in general food crops are no more than 50% efficient, in that for every tonne of food produced a further tonne of potential biomass is produced".[126]

102. As noted in paragraphs 55-57 above, second generation biofuels such as the ligno-cellulosic ethanol produced by Iogen, and the Biomass-to-Liquid Fischer-Tropsch transport fuels, can use waste organic materials such as straw and woody waste. Consequently we conclude that second generation biofuel production is less likely to have the same impact on world commodity markets as first generation biofuel production, which competes with the food industry for corn and oil feedstocks, further pointing to the desirability of investing in the necessary technologies.[127]

Energy from waste

103. Organic material such as waste vegetable oils from the food industry, forestry thinnings, brash, arboricultural arisings from landscape maintenance and sawdust all constitute potential sources of biomass for heat and electricity generation. The Biomass Task Force estimates that in 2004, of the total 5-6 million tonnes (Mt) of wood waste generated, only 1.4 Mt was recovered. The Task Force report argues that a further 1.5 Mt of high quality wood waste and approximately 2-3 Mt of contaminated wood waste could also be recovered, which could generate up to 8.5 terawatt hours (TWh) of heat, equivalent to approximately 1% of the total UK heat demand.[128] This could save 0.85 Mt carbon.[129] The Task Force told us that one of the most significant findings to emerge from its extensive study was the ready availability, as a source of biomass, of at least three million tonnes of wood waste which currently goes into landfill.[130]

104. The Government provides a more conservative estimate, claiming that only 0.7 million tonnes of woodfuel a year could be provided "without serious disruption to existing wood-using industries", leading to carbon savings of 0.25 MtC. According to the Government's Climate Change Programme 2006, a great many woodlands are currently overstocked and are not being actively managed. The Government claims that:

If barriers to active management were removed, up to an additional one million dry tonnes per annum of woodfuel could be sourced from existing English woodland between now and 2020, corresponding to savings of 0.12 MtC in 2010 and 0.4 MtC in 2020.[131]

105. Several contributors to our inquiry emphasise that large amounts of organic waste material suitable for use as an energy source are being sent to landfill. English Nature cites research from 2003 which estimates that waste oils from the food industry could be used to produce around 100,000 tonnes of biodiesel, effectively replacing 90,000 hectares of oilseed rape.[132] As the Environment Agency argues, using waste material as a source of bioenergy also diverts the waste away from landfill or incineration, and so bioenergy from waste could play a key role in a sustainable waste strategy.[133] Sir Ben Gill illustrated the point:

it is just plain crass stupid the way we use our raw materials. We waste as much heat as we could use. We make the point in here in terms of reclaimed timber; we are currently putting into landfill four to five million tonnes per annum. That is the equivalent to the output from half a million hectares of land that we are putting into landfill … This needs to change.[134]

106. Inetec, a company based in Bridgend, Wales, provides on-site technology to enable industrial-scale food producers to convert food waste into heat and electricity. Inetec highlights a number of barriers to the commercialisation of their technology. Concerns about planning and permitting, including the length of time required to gain planning permission, are cited as key barriers.[135] These are discussed in greater detail in our recent report on the Environment Agency.[136]

107. Other barriers to the use of waste as a source of bioenergy include a "lack of awareness, few secure supply chains, perceived risk and a lack of skilled engineers" as well as the classification of potential sources of bioenergy as 'waste', which Scottish Renewables describes as "the biggest 'own goal' to have yet been scored by Government". [137]

108. It was made clear to us that organic waste material—much of which currently goes to landfill—represents an untapped source of energy. We support the work of the Biomass Task Force and its leader Sir Ben Gill in highlighting the energy potential of waste, and trust that this line of thinking will be fully integrated into the Government's forthcoming new strategy for waste. We see the generation of heat and electricity as an important part of any effective waste strategy. The contribution of waste to energy production could be substantial. However, this should be made alongside, and not instead of, efforts in other areas.

General conclusions on land use

109. The UK's wheat surplus is currently exported (see paragraph 92 above). According to the Biosciences Federation and the Royal Society of Chemistry, the UK could meet the 5% RTFO target solely through domestic production by using this surplus to produce bioethanol, and by growing oilseed rape on all UK set-aside land to produce biodiesel.[138] This is supported by the NFU.[139] The Biosciences Federation and the Royal Society of Chemistry go on to say, however, that ultimately "UK capacity to produce biofuels is limited to 5-10% of the total transport fuel demand". They maintain that the 'best use' of land in terms of carbon savings is in growing crops for heat and electricity generation rather than for transport fuel.[140] As Dr Woods (representing the Biosciences Federation and the Royal Society of Chemistry) explained, emissions from the transport sector need to be addressed in the short term, and biofuels are currently the only available means to do so. However, in terms of the bioenergy mix, he stated that:

… it is really too early to start picking between the sectors and to say, yes, we should in effect abandon one of the sectors in preference for the other. … at the moment we are not anywhere near the limits of the resources … .[141]

110. This stance is supported by Graham Hilton from the Energy Crops Company, who argued that extracting biofuels and biomass from the same crop was a distinct possibility:

The first is that it is not either or; there is actually a very heavy interplay between the two. For instance, there is a significant amount of straw generated by growing wheat for bio-ethanol, and the varieties of wheat that produce the highest starch and therefore the highest alcohol yield also have the longest straw, also have the lowest nitrogen fertiliser input, so there is a real win-win available in this.[142]

111. The NFU concludes in its supplementary evidence that the "synergy between biomass crops and other renewables such as biofuels has yet to be fully explored in this country. These two markets should not be viewed as competing uses but as complementary parts of the renewable energy package".[143]

112. Defra acknowledges the complex relationship between the costs and benefits of prioritising one source of bioenergy over another:

it is recognised that if you take the comparisons in terms of the given amount of land that you have available for use for either of these purposes, the consensus would be that using the land to produce biomass for energy generation, and in particular heat, is significantly better than using the same amount of land for biofuel. … [but] it is necessary … to consider the state of development … the potential uptake and the results of using different types of policy mechanisms … the RTFO in the transport sector will have … an immediate and dramatic effect across the economy.[144]

113. Questions over land use are at the heart of bioenergy policy. We are concerned by the implications of the Government's claim that "by 2050 the UK could produce as much as one third of its transport energy needs" from renewable sources. We recommend that the Government make clear in its response to our report the evidence—and assumptions made in relation to land use—to support this claim. Biofuels for transport currently offer an important way to reduce carbon emissions from the growing transport sector, but increased production may have an adverse effect on food production and biodiversity. If the Government goes ahead with the increase in the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation beyond 5%, as proposed in the Energy Review, there may be serious UK land use implications. Exploiting the 'dual-functionality' of crops to provide both food and bioenergy may go some way to mitigating this.

114. Biomass crops used for heat and electricity can have a positive impact on biodiversity, and offer greater carbon savings per hectare, but in the case of short rotation coppice, are costly to establish and yield no output for four years. They therefore require considerable investor confidence. Whilst we recognise that the complex matrix of advantages and disadvantages relating to the various uses of arable land precludes any simple choice between sources, the Government must act now to help reconcile and rationalise these apparent inconsistencies in order to maximise carbon savings.

106   Ev 57  Back

107   Carbon Trust, Biomass sector review for the Carbon Trust, October 2005; Ev 90-91 Back

108   See table 2, pg 20 Back

109   Ev 91 Back

110   Defra, Climate Change: The UK Programme 2006, Cm 6764. March 2006  Back

111   Ev 152 Back

112   Ev 2 Back

113   Ev 15 [NFU] Back

114   Ev 2 Back

115   Department for Transport, Promotion and Use of Biofuels in the United Kingdom, report to the European Commission, June 2006 Back

116   Ev 219 Back

117   OECD presentation to the Committee, Agricultural Market Impacts of Increased Biofuel Production, 20th June 2006 Back

118   Ev 113  Back

119   Ev 213 Back

120   Ev 15-16, 92 Back

121   Q 258 Back

122   Ev 222 Back

123   Ev 233  Back

124   Ev 233  Back

125   Ev 4 Back

126   Ev 17 Back

127   Q 301 [Shell] Back

128   Calculated using figures from Future Energy Solutions from AEA Technology Renewable Heat and Heat from Combined Heat and Power Plants - Study and Analysis, 2005; total UK heat demand = 737.5 TWhth/y Back

129   Biomass Task Force, Report to Government, October 2005 Back

130   Q 192 Back

131   Defra, Climate Change: The UK Programme 2006, Cm 6764. March 2006 Back

132   Ev 112  Back

133   Ev 230  Back

134   Q 164 Back

135   Ev 250 Back

136   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, The Environment Agency, HC 780, May 2006 Back

137   Ev 218  Back

138   Ev 91 Back

139   Ev 2 Back

140   Ev 90  Back

141   Qq 212, 219 Back

142   Q 89 Back

143   Ev 16 Back

144   Q 465 Back

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