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There is definitely some merit in the biofuels arena, but the damaging effects have been well documented—and highlighted in the debate today. It is not always certain that there will be overall carbon emission reductions, because of the amount of fertilizers and oil-based products
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that go into producing biofuel crops in the first place. There is an impact on food production and availability around the world; as we have heard, what is happening has other causes too, but I do not lightly dismiss the view of the UN expert I cited, and we would be unwise to do so. From a general, common-sense point of view, it is logical to conclude that if a farmer will get more money from growing biofuel crops than from growing food, with a consequent change in land use, there will be an impact on food supply in other countries, and particularly in some developing countries where there are general food shortages and great problems. The related issue that really struck me was deforestation, and the clearing of land for the growing of biofuels. Of course, we know that deforestation is one of the biggest causes of carbon emissions. About a fifth of the world’s carbon emissions each year come from that, so it is hardly smart to clear forests to grow biofuels to make some reduction in the carbon emitted by road transport.

In the light of all those issues in relation to biofuels, it would seem clear that we need robust sustainability and emission reduction standards, so that customers can be certain when they buy fuel containing an element of biofuel that it will reduce a vehicle’s overall emissions, and that it has been produced in a sustainable manner. That is why, as the report outlines, it is a matter of great concern that we have gone ahead with the target this year before those standards have been established. That rush is one mistake.

Another worry that arose in the evidence sessions was about trying to work out whether it is possible to create sustainability standards that are robust enough. It might be possible, and is more likely, in the case of UK production, where we have more control over regulation and accountability. However, how is it possible for sustainability standards for biofuels produced in other countries to capture the prospect, not necessarily of deforestation to grow biofuels, but of changes in land use from food crops to biofuels, followed by deforestation to grow food crops? The causal links may not be clear; they may be impossible to capture within sustainability standards. That is hugely likely to result in an increase in overall emissions. Until we manage to deal with such thorny issues about sustainability standards it is difficult to know how we can be confident about reducing emissions by going ahead with biofuels.

The value for money issue has rightly been raised. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) talked about it. The amounts of money that we are considering are very significant. From the renewable transport fuel obligation alone £500 million of revenue is lost to the Government. We must ask ourselves whether that is the best way of using £500 million to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. We need to consider the sums being spent on other initiatives and the results that can be achieved from promoting better, environmentally friendly driving, or energy efficiency. The latter is always the Cinderella of the climate change arguments, because everyone agrees that it is the best and probably the cheapest way to tackle climate change, but it is at the bottom of the pile for allocation of money and resources. Another suggestion made in evidence for improving the way we use such sums of money to tackle carbon emissions was avoiding deforestation schemes, or, indeed, using reforestation schemes to set up more carbon sinks. The value for money question has been left very much unanswered.

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I understand why biofuels seem such an attractive solution from the point of view of the Department for Transport, and the elegance of being able to tell people they can keep driving and continue with the same behaviour, and that that will be fine because we shall reduce emissions none the less. There is a place in policy making for ensuring that people can continue with some of the same behaviour, but reducing the carbon impact of that. Indeed, some of the work that is happening in Europe and that the Government have been promoting, on cleaner vehicle standards, is a very good example. Obviously, that is a pain-free way to reduce emissions. However, it is not a silver bullet and we must also grasp the nettle of behaviour change. Some of the relevant resources might be better spent.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) talked about the priority for tackling climate change, and the Committee focuses on little else in its inquiries. I know that all its members are very committed to tackling climate change. What we were trying to explain in our report was that biofuels may not be the best way to do it, and that there are many other alternatives that we could pursue with the same resource, which would be more cost-effective. Given all the problems I have described, the current targets, by pushing and rushing towards biofuels, are counterproductive. That is not to say that biofuels cannot play an important role. However, we need to take stock and halt our rush towards biofuels until we can iron out some of the problems.

The Government, to their credit—it is not often that I say that—announced in February that they would review biofuels. That is very welcome. Governments are often criticised for U-turns, but it is not a sign of weakness to change one’s mind when the facts change. The situation in the past few months has been changing rapidly. Many more reports and documents and much more information have been available to highlight the concerns. The issue is not for the Government only, as has been mentioned. It is an EU issue, because we are tied into the targets through the European Union. Indeed, the EU has been taking the lead on climate change in a global way. I am sure that the targets were put in place for the right reasons, and that that was very well meaning. However, the science has moved on somewhat, and we have a different understanding of biofuels. It is time to revise the targets down, until the sustainability concerns have been addressed. I hope that the Government will use their voice in Europe to discuss with our European partners how we can progress the issue at European level, stop the rush, take stock, and make sure that sustainability standards are in place and the issues are dealt with, before we go headlong into promoting biofuels.

I know that the Minister has a genuine desire to reduce transport emissions. The importance of the issue on both sides is symbolised by the to-ing and fro-ing of reports between the Government and the Committee, trying to see whether they can reach a common position. The Government have started to move on the issue, and I encourage them to move further and recognise that we need to stop the rush towards biofuels until the serious and real concerns about sustainability have been addressed.

3.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I will not detain Westminster Hall long, Mr. Amess. I pay tribute to the Select Committee for its report, which makes
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some very interesting recommendations. Obviously, it is in some dispute with the Government over how it wants to go forward.

May I also plug my own Select Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which, if nothing else, got in first? We considered climate change and the role of bioenergy a couple of years before the Environmental Audit Committee. I do not want to get into Select Committee wars, but we are considering a moveable feast—something that has a different context now. The two Committees, however, came to somewhat different conclusions. I wish to dwell on a few of the issues at the heart of those differences.

Clearly, we can agree on some things. We were quite agnostic about the current generation of biofuels because we did not see them as a long-term solution. That was why there was a big call to go to the second generation as quickly as possible, particularly, and crucially, for air transport. We considered the notion of synthetic kerosene in some detail, but I will not bore the House with trying to explain what that can do. It certainly has opportunities.

As part of our inquiry, we visited Brazil. In a sense, Brazil is central to our dilemma. We can all put up our hands and say, “It is terrible what is happening to the Amazon.” We all sign our petitions. We probably all send out these NGO cards to ourselves about what we must do to forestall this terrible degradation of our world. Yet, at the same time, one of the reasons why the Brazilian economy has been so successful is because it began to use molasses, a by-product of its sugar industry, to form bioethanol, which went into producing hybrid cars, and we were in complete awe. Basically, the Brazilian Government went to the car manufacturers and said, “You will, over a period of time, increase the blend, otherwise you will not produce these cars in this country.” That was the slap of firm government. Obviously, there are dangers in that, but they proved that they could take on an industry and change the nature of the world in so doing.

We now have biodiesel blends. The first garage that introduced the blend is in my constituency—I won’t embarrass them by saying where it was. Now biodiesel is offered as a matter of course. My key point, and I do not want to labour it for long, is that we considered issues around the biomass taskforce under Sir Ben Gill. I will be very careful what I say because the Opposition spokesperson is here, but agriculture was on its knees—it is always on its knees—and this seemed a clever ruse to rebuild the arable sector. Three years on, we have extremely rich barley barons—as I said, I will be very careful. Three years is not a long time in policy evolution. Yet we have seen a huge change. We are now talking about food shortages, the price of food and people whose income was on the floor three years ago being the richest people in the country.

Ms Dari Taylor: Does my hon. Friend also accept the findings of the Renewable Energy Association that the additional land needed for biofuels could be 75 million to 220 million hectares? The important point is that that will account for 2 per cent. of productive land by 2030. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that we are not talking about taking masses of land away from food production? We are taking a very small amount.

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Mr. Drew: My main justification for speaking today is to argue for some balance in the way in which policy evolution takes place, for that reason. Of course the biofuels policy has to be sustainable. It has to be sustainable not just here but in the wider world. Again, I am sure that this debate has to be had in Brazil. If it is not, then, to me, the choice between death by poisoning or death by slashing our wrists is still death. If we suddenly believe that we have to do something about food prices because that is the only problem now facing us and we then forget our carbon obligations, it does not save us in the long run because we are going in the same direction.

Ms Taylor: The absolute fact for all of us in the House is that if we do not start sorting out the common agricultural policy, we will be talking about food prices when our children are as old as we are. The fact is that we have mountains of goodness knows what, but the prices are kept high.

Mr. Drew: Of course, I agree with that. As a dyed-in-the-wool Eurosceptic, everyone would expect me to agree with that. I am glad that everyone has come around to my point of view. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I will go to our graves happy that we have reconverted our party to the position it should be in as regards our position in Europe. Never mind; we can live in hope.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). I do not know whether she has read my notes—I cannot read them because they are such a scribble—but she has taken away all my key points. I can more or less sit down and shut up. It is not because of our biofuels policy that we are in this mess; it is the fact that we have a completely insane agricultural policy and, more particularly, that we do not have a food policy. If we could get a national food policy, let alone a European or world food policy, we might be able to do something and have some context to make some sensible decisions on bioenergy, biofuels, biomass and the rest of it.

I will put my hand up here. I am one of those who argued for the renewable transport fuels obligation. I know that politicians do not like to take responsibility for anything because it is much better to say, “It wasn’t anything to do with me, Guv. I was always against it.” Occasionally, however, we have to stand up and be counted. Three years ago when we did our report, and subsequent to that, there was a group of us who said that the problem with the Government was that they did not get the message; they were not moving fast enough in this area. We were saying that bioenergy had to be part of the solution, and that the only way to make it part of the solution was for us to kick-start it. It was only in April that we got the culmination of that with the RTFO coming into place.

Joan Walley: I have been listening very carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that it is important that we have a vision and a goal and that we take action? However, when we take that action it is important that we put in the necessary sustainability standards; otherwise, that action will distort the very objective that we seek to achieve. I agree with him that we need those standards, but we need to get them right. We do not want the Government to rush ahead until they have the standards and safeguards there.

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Mr. Drew: It is easy to agree. There is no point in having a policy that is counter-productive. Of course, I would argue that we have to be clear about our standards. However, to be fair—and I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South—we have firms up and running in this area which believe that they are doing the right thing because they were given the policy lead from this place, with some of us kicking the Government up the backside and saying, “You are not going fast enough, far enough and firm enough in terms of policy”, and now we are saying that it is the wrong policy. It is easy for us to say, “We have lots of wrong policies”—some of us would argue that we have wrong policies in some areas—but occasionally we have to be honest and say, “Okay, we may have got it slightly wrong, but we cannot keep changing policies; otherwise, the instruments with which we are trying to encourage the changes to happen, to deal with the thing called climate change, will become confusing and it will be so messy out there.” It is not just hon. Members who are saying that. If we had that much power as parliamentarians, all hon. Members would be here doing whatever they do to the best of their ability, feeling that they were great agents for change. The agriculture people were arguing that they wanted the changes because, as I said earlier, they felt that they had to get greater investment to use the land for things other than food.

There is also the biofuels industry to consider. I am sympathetic to that industry. A number of firms have set up in that area and have been successful in encouraging the use of biofuels. However, the non-governmental organisations are also involved. I have to say that it is easier for them to suddenly change sides than to manage Chelsea! That goes on as day follows night. I remember being lobbied and it was not just happening for me. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who has been the greatest advocate in the House for what we tried to do, and I were being pushed by NGOs to say, “You’ve got to realise your climate change obligations and bioenergy is one of the ways in which you can do that.” Okay, we may have got it wrong: we may have needed to graduate this and we may need more balance in the arguments.

I shall now return to what I was saying, because I have gone out of kilter. If I read my notes I might get back into some semblance of order. The problem is not biofuels, which are a drop in the ocean, relatively speaking in terms of land use; the problem is that we have failed to address food security. I have some ownership of that issue, because I had a debate in this Chamber on Tuesday on food security, in which I tried to make that point. The Government responded well, saying, “Yes, we’ve got a problem; we’ve got to do something about it.” It is not just a British problem and is certainly not just a European problem: it is a worldwide problem.

But calling for a moratorium is a bit like chucking the baby out with the bathwater. It is not as simple as saying, “Let’s have a moratorium; it’s the easy way out. Let’s just produce more food”, because all hon. Members know—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South mentioned it—that food is wasted and that a cheap food policy has not always delivered all the things that we wanted it to.

All I am asking for is some balance when looking at the arguments, some stability in policy evolution and some guarantees to companies that are taking a risk
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and investing in this area, but now, all of a sudden, are being told that they should forget the obligation from April, because they will not get any more investment owing to the policy being changed. Given my politics and from my perspective, I can be a bit rude to business now because I have already been a bit rude to farmers. I am not sympathetic in this regard just because people take risks. However, it is a bit worrying when the context of that risk is entirely driven by something external to themselves and they are told a message which then changes completely. I could go on in the same vein as my hon. Friend about companies that have been in that position and now feel a bit uncertain, to put it mildly.

To me, biofuels were never the answer. How long does a Select Committee report last? Probably less time than my Select Committee thought ours would last, because ours was a bit more optimistic and progressive in respect of where we saw the opportunities for biofuels. We may have been too optimistic, but considering this matter purely pessimistically and saying that biofuels are no answer at all to the problems of reducing carbon is unduly negative. We must get other things right. We certainly have to get the agricultural subsidy regime right, because although it might be daft to subsidise agriculture in the way that we do, it is certainly daft to subsidise alternative non-food production. However, that is because we have got the subsidy regime wrong; it is not to do with biofuels per se.

I hope that my contribution has been helpful, even if I have brought a note of rancour into these wonderful consensual debates.

3.44 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, and to have the opportunity to contribute to this most important debate. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly mentioned the need for balance in the debate. That is crucial, because what we are talking about is self-evidently not a black and white issue.

I thank the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and the Environmental Audit Committee for their hard work on the topic, which is especially relevant in the context of the European Union’s current consultation on a directive on the issue. We can no longer afford to get our environmental policies wrong. We all agree that climate change needs to be tackled effectively here and now. The Committee’s report is useful and gives us insights on the background to biofuels.

I should make it clear from the beginning that, although I agree that the report lays out in some detail the problems that can be caused by biofuels, the Liberal Democrats believe that those problems are surmountable and that the United Kingdom cannot afford to write off biofuels altogether as a viable option for powering transport. We are, therefore, not minded at this stage to support the Committee’s call for a moratorium. We Liberal Democrats believe that there is an important role for good, sustainable biofuels to play in the UK transport fuel market and that abandoning the targets completely would be a step backwards for the UK’s sustainable energy industry and for its ability to control its carbon footprint.

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All hon. Members are, of course, aware that transport is responsible for roughly a quarter of the UK’s total carbon emissions, with road transport alone responsible for more than 21 per cent. That figure has not decreased in recent years, but has risen as more people have cars and use them more often, so it is vital that Britain is carbon neutral by 2050, including transport. We therefore need a solution—or perhaps I should say solutions—to the problem of powering transport, especially road transport.

As hon. Members have said, new technologies are developing all the time. Just a few years ago only one hybrid car was available in the showrooms—the Prius—but now the consumer can choose between many models. There are also advances in electric cars that could come from entirely green energy sources, including hydrogen technology and, of course, sustainable biofuels. There is other encouraging news. Yesterday, I noticed in the Financial Times that for the first time in 26 years the Ford pick-up truck was replaced as the USA’s No. 1 seller by the smaller, more environmentally friendly Honda Civic. In the UK we have seen a dramatic increase in the sales of hybrid cars. Those facts point to a positive trend. People are starting to vote with their feet and their wallets on environmental issues. We need to take advantage of that movement to help cut carbon emissions as much as possible.

Despite certain media reports, it is too simplistic to generalise about whether biofuels are a good or bad thing. Of course, we are well aware that biofuels are not completely carbon neutral as yet, but they can create carbon savings when compared directly with fossil fuels. Whether they create carbon savings, and what the size of those savings is, depends entirely on how and where the raw materials are grown and how they are converted into biofuels and then transported. The true carbon cost of any biofuel can only be calculated if the carbon cost of growing it, including the machinery and fertilisers used, converting it and then transporting it are all taken into account. We must include the carbon cost of any change in land use.

There are other environmental and social costs attached to biofuels that are important for us to understand, acknowledge and attempt to address. If biofuel farms replace rainforest or peat land, it can take hundreds of years to replace the carbon cost. The unique eco-systems, wildlife and biodiversity of that land can never be replaced. We cannot and must not allow the use of such land to continue.

Biofuels also compete with food for the land that is used to grow them. Just this week, as was mentioned earlier, concerns were expressed at the UN food summit in Rome about the security and scarcity of food supplies. Although I am sure that biofuels are not the only or main reason for the current food crisis facing the world, using land currently utilised for agricultural purposes to grow fuel—almost literally—can only exacerbate the problem. We must work to ensure that does not happen.

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