House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Climate Change

Climate Change Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Peter Atkinson, Frank Cook
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Barker, Gregory (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Chaytor, Mr. David (Bury, North) (Lab)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Gummer, Mr. John (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Maclean, David (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
McIntosh, Miss Anne (Vale of York) (Con)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Ruddock, Joan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
Walley, Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
Weir, Mr. Mike (Angus) (SNP)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for the Environment)
John Benger, Sara Howe Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 8 July 2008


[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Climate Change Bill [Lords]

Schedule 6

Renewable transport fuel obligations
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in schedule 6, page 75, line 38, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) It is the duty of the Administrator to ensure that only renewable transport fuel that—
(a) causes or contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions over its total lifecycle from planting or production to use, and
(b) contributes to sustainable development and the protection or enhancement of the national or global environment generally,
qualifies as a permitted fuel under this Act.’.—[Martin Horwood.]
4 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I am reminded that amendment No. 1 is narrowly drawn. It is not about the generalities of biofuels, but about the role of the administrator. I am sure that Members would agree that the role of the administrator is of considerable importance in the light of the growing understanding of concerns about the origins and derivations of biofuels. I declare an interest: for many years our company has been working with the largest manufacturer of biofuels from used fat. Indeed, we helped to develop the modern techniques that make that a very successful procedure. As should be the case when one declares an interest, I know a bit about the subject, and I support the Liberal Democrat proposals. If the presumption is not tested clearly that biofuels are better than mineral oils and that they do more for the environment than the equivalent fossil fuel, we bring the whole process into disrepute. That ought to be our main concern. It is very important to make that distinction, and I have indeed sought do so for a very long time.
I do not blame the Government, because it was difficult to get biofuels taken seriously, and that has not been helped by the way in which they have been seen, first, as the be all and end all, and the answer to every possible prayer—maidenly or otherwise—and, secondly, by the same people, as precisely the opposite. It is said that there is no good biofuel to be found. Sometimes, those in the campaigning movements should pause awhile and recognise that it is not satisfactory to march people up to the top of the hill, and then march them down again. A little more careful consideration in the first place and a little less precipitate action in the second place, might make it easier for those of us with responsibilities to get a bit nearer the truth. It might also help us to avoid the “I told you sos” from the climate change sceptics, such as the Daily Mail, and all other trouble makers in this area. I hope, therefore, that those from the green organisations who read the report of this debate will recognise that they have not helped the debate about biofuels one little bit.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. If I wanted to use taxpayers’ money, I would cross-reference the addresses of people who wrote to me in favour of biofuels with the addresses of those who wrote to me recently against biofuels. But I shall not waste the taxpayers’ money.
Mr. Gummer: That temptation arises on many occasions. I am glad that the Minister has rightly fought against temptation, but I know exactly what he means—the same is true of other things in life.
We must therefore try to make the Bill the most sensible answer possible. It goes against a lifetime’s experience to say this, but I think that the Liberal Democrats were right to table amendment No. 1—they know that that is my general view. It is right to make the changes that they have proposed, first because this is a matter of life cycles. It is quite a difficult thing to do, but at the same time it is essential. One cannot say that particular biofuels from particular sources are always as beneficial in one circumstance as another.
Let me give an example: biofuels produced close to the point of use are likely to have a lower carbon footprint than those produced a very long way away that have to be carried a long distance, although not necessarily. A biofuel source may be much more carbon intensive if the fuel is produced using a particular process rather than another way. A lot of research has shown that to be true.
I commend to the Minister the work of Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, which he supports. That partnership has produced some good work on which we can base our judgments. I was sad that the Government found themselves unable to use its work from the beginning on the renewable transport fuel obligation. I hope that they can use it now and the amendment will enable it to be used.
Subsection (2)(b) of the amendment would widen the tone of the phrase by using the words “enhancement”, “protection”, “national or global environment” and “generally”. They are all useful additions that would help to achieve what the Government really want. I hope that the Government feel that they can take that on board.
Finally, the amendment is valuable because it would add to the administration of the system—a point that you, Mr. Atkinson, drew our attention to earlier on. That is important because we must move to a world in which we take these matters into account automatically and without a second thought, so that this is not some great new operation stuck out there, but simply the way that we think and the means by which we move forward. It is what my mother used to refer to as “good habits”. There is a lot to be said for doing things the right way all the time. I shall put it bluntly: people who find themselves in extremis revert to type, so it is valuable for them to have good habits. When something crops up that they did not expect, I want the default mode of a society and a Government to be, “This is how we behave and this is the mechanism that we always use”. Therefore, I congratulate the Liberal Democrats for tabling the amendment, because it not only makes the point that needs to be made, but sets an example about how we ought to behave in all circumstances.
We should ensure that the two elements are measured—first, the life cycle, so that we know what the carbon footprint really is; and secondly, how it contributes to sustainable development, not only to the protection of, but to the enhancement of both the national and the global environment. All that should be seen not just in specifics, but in generalities. Therefore, I hope that the Government will find this a suitable amendment to accept. I know that it is always difficult to accept amendments but, after all, this one is in line with their own thinking.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): May I say how relieved I am that my right hon. Friend has moved away from exhorting the Minister to be vulgar and is extolling the virtues of his mother’s good habits. The Committee will be on safer ground if we stick with the latter—not to mention the habits of any dustbin men. I rise generally to support, if not the amendment, the thrust of what has been said by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cheltenham. The Minister may say that the amendment is not necessary, because proposed new section 125A(2) of the Energy Act 2004, on page 75, already does what the amendment would do and that the Government intend to ensure that the administrator promotes only good biofuels.
A few years ago, I was one of those who thought that biofuels could do no wrong, but I was wrong to think that. I was perhaps looking at the issue from a Cumbrian or a United Kingdom perspective. I looked at the acres and acres of set-aside and at the weeds and thistles and thought, “Goodness me, why are we promoting that? I know that there’s a wildlife element involved, but can’t we grow biofuels there instead?” I was looking at the issue from the perspective of what we could do in our localities to grow indigenous British crops closer to home and convert them into biofuel, because I thought that was a better alternative to leaving land fallow or set aside. In those circumstances, there was a place for biofuels, and I called for more of them to be produced in Cumbria, so that we did not need to have a plague of ghastly wind farms, like a noose around the neck of the Lake district.
In the past few years, however, I have seen certain countries cut down their original, primal rain forests to grow sugar cane to convert into biofuels, and I therefore joined the school of thought that believes that biofuels can do no right. That, too, is wrong, and I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said. It is utterly wrong to cut down original rain forests to grow short-term crops—sugar cane or date palms for palm oil—that are then converted into biofuels and transported hundreds of thousands of miles around the world.
Colleagues on both sides of the Committee will be relieved to know that I am not going down the old biodiversity and rain forest speech route again, but it is a million times better to keep rain forests intact and preserve our biodiversity than to cut them down for biofuels. It is better for our carbon footprint to let them grow ad infinitum and then to let them rot and grow afresh than it is to cut them down—that immediately releases carbon—than to grow short-term crops for biofuels that do nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.
All that I want from the Minister is an absolute assurance that, even if the Government will not accept the amendment, the administrator will take into account the thrust of what the hon. Member for Cheltenham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal have said and will promote the supply of transport fuel using biofuels only if those biofuels have not been produced by destroying a better crop, such as primal rain forest or our upland bogs and peatlands, which have locked carbon in.
I have no objection to using biofuels if they are from short-term coppice or myriad other crops that I have never heard of and do not understand, if they come from close to home and if they do not involve a huge number of whatever the equivalent of food miles is—I suppose that the term would be fuel miles. Similarly, I have no objection to biofuels if we do not cause more destruction or release more carbon into the atmosphere to create the modern environment to grow short-term biofuel crops. That is not the way to go, and I look forward to the Minister’s assurance.
Mr. Woolas: It is nice to see you back in the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. Let me say at the start how grateful I am to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for making the statement on the Gallagher review to the House before we got to the amendment. I would like to say that that was a consequence of my Machiavellian and detailed planning, but I have always believed in the cock-up theory, not in the conspiracy theory. Seriously, however, it is good for the Committee that we are debating the amendment after the statement on the Gallagher review, because I suspect that right hon. and hon. Members would have smelled a rat and seen a conspiracy where there simply was not one.
The schedule and therefore the amendment are not about the rights and wrongs of the renewable transport fuel obligation. As you rightly said, Mr. Atkinson, they are about an amendment to the way in which the administrator works. However, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham is helpful in that it addresses the instruction to the administrator on how we may improve the confidence of the consumer and show that, under the scheme, biofuels are sustainable. That is the intention of schedule 6, in which we have made amendments that build on the policy and improve its functioning in exactly the area on which the hon. Gentleman tabled his amendment. It is about increasing sustainability and, with it, consumer confidence, let alone the environmental sustainability that we are all in favour of.
4.15 pm
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I can give an assurance to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border that the Government agree with the policy behind the amendment. I have a problem with the amendment, which I will explain, if I may, Mr. Atkinson, but with your permission I shall briefly outline the purpose of the schedule before addressing the amendment specifically, otherwise I may lose the thread of the argument.
The changes to the renewable transport fuel obligation that we are advancing in the schedule are designed to enhance the operation of the order to give increased flexibility, but they are not essential to the operation of the RTFO. We are not debating whether that goes ahead, but talking about how it works. Under the schedule, a number of changes are made to the provisions of the Energy Act 2004, in order to improve it.
Proposed new section 125 would replicate the existing provision for setting up a non-departmental public body and appointing it as the administrator, so it preserves the effect of the order appointing the Renewable Fuels Agency. Proposed new section 125A would place a new duty on the administrator of the scheme to promote the supply of renewable fuel, which delivers carbon savings and contributes to sustainable development or general environmental protection. There is consensus on that point throughout the Committee. We want to use schedule 6 to improve the instruction to the administrator to ensure that there is sustainability. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham goes a little bit further and, as I said earlier, we agree with that policy.
Of course, we acknowledge the point that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal made about the worries about some biofuels and the production methods relating to some biofuels, but we do not wish to throw the baby out with the bath water. We recognise that to encourage research and development in future generations of biofuels, it is necessary to help create a market for existing biofuels so long as they are sustainable, as far as is humanly possible.
Proposed new section 125B would enable the Secretary of State to give written directions to the administrator about the use of any power that the administrator has, under an RTF order, to require information from fuel suppliers or to specify the form of the information or the period within which it is required. That power enables us to instruct the administrator to provide and report on the information that all of us want to see.
That is an abridged version of the rationale for the new schedule. Let me turn to amendment No. 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. I have already said that the Government agree with the policy behind the amendment. Let me take Committee members through the reasons, which I hope will satisfy them, why we do not want the specific wording. I strongly believe that I can convince the Committee that we are getting to where the hon. Gentleman wants to be, but by a route which, because of the European Union interest that he mentioned, gets us to the right place.
The criteria and methodology for demonstrating the carbon saving and sustainability of the products is complex. I do not want to hide behind that. We are committed to certification and sustainability criteria. The amendment would introduce a requirement under law that affected entitlement to certificates for the selling of biofuels and, consequently, the biofuels market. It would not define what is required. Without an amendment to the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order 2007, of which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle reminded us, to provide the necessary definitions, the law would be uncertain. It would therefore be left to the courts to decide on the criteria and the methodology.
My problem is that, at present, the European Union criteria and methods are being developed. I am advised that the EU law falls under the technical standards directive, which we strongly support. It is not something that Europe is imposing on us against our will. That will never happen. I want to make it clear that we support that because it is in our interests to have a biofuels market that it is EU-based. The technical standards directive does not currently allow member states to implement legislation that covers the same ground.
Under the directive, UK law setting carbon and sustainability requirements, including the amendment and other associated amendments to the 2007 order, would be subject to a stand-still period to prevent its implementation for at least 12 months to enable the EU criteria to be agreed and adopted. Furthermore, if we were unilaterally to introduce the criteria and method in the United Kingdom, it might be difficult to ensure compliance with EU trade rules. That is a subsidiary argument, but one that I put before the hon. Member for Cheltenham.
If the amendment were accepted, it would be legally ineffective until such time as the EU carbon-saving and sustainability requirements are adopted, at which point it would be superseded. My argument to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is not the usual ministerial contention that the amendment is not necessary because it is covered anyway, but that it is not necessary for different reasons. First, it would be ineffective for a year and, secondly, when we have the EU policy, it would be superseded.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The Minister makes a technically accurate and important point that was made also in another place. I referred earlier to the possibility of the EU’s legislative timetable not going according to schedule and the directive not being adopted before the next European elections in June 2009. That raises a different scenario, which the hon. Gentleman should address.
Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 9 July 2008