Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 93)



  Q80  Mr Stuart: I was interested by your testimony turning on the suggestion that there are certain natural habitats which would be maintained which, perhaps because of other Directives or whatever, would be able to be kept in a natural state and produce biofuels, so, in other words, there are situations where you would not be displacing land which would otherwise be used for agriculture.

  Dr Weighell: You used the word "inevitable" and it is always a bit difficult when you say that to distinguish between what is inevitable and what is not. What I was saying about the natural functions is that there are some areas, for example, in soils where there is a huge reservoir of carbon and to disturb that, to produce biofuels to save carbon emissions, is obviously ridiculous if it is not carefully controlled, so there are certain natural functions of the environment, whether it is forests, wetlands or whatever, where there are huge carbon savings by maintaining those or increasing the area that they cover, so that is one thing. In terms of land leakage, it depends where you are and what the constraints on land are. You could argue in the European Union that land is very tightly controlled and managed and that is a different situation from sub-Saharan Africa where there are huge areas which we regard as potentially unused, and I think it is in that sort of area where you are hoping to get the transformation and you could produce biofuels or use biomass in those areas without significant impacts if it was done in an informed fashion, so I think leakage depends on where you are and the nature of it.

  Ms Magnus: I think there is a very great uncertainty with estimates that around 15-38% of European arable land would be required to achieve the 10% target. If you take the top end of this, there will be land leakage and how will we be able as well to produce enough food to feed everybody?

  Q81  Mr Stuart: So is it your personal view that biofuels in the European context are unsustainable?

  Ms Magnus: I would say my personal view is that the 10% target is not sustainable, no.

  Q82  Mr Stuart: Should there be a renewed focus on international instruments to protect natural habitats, perhaps market mechanisms to reward avoiding deforestation? Could this be part of the toolkit?

  Dr Weighell: I think there have to be market mechanisms to compensate for what is happening now which is a target-driven, new industry which is responding to the market and I think you need some sort of parallel mechanism which rewards what you have just said, the use of ecosystems to deal with carbon rather than to chop things down to grow biofuel crops. Otherwise, you will have asymmetric economics and there will be an economic incentive to produce the fuels and not so much incentive to protect the habitat or to re-establish forest and wetlands.

  Q83  Mr Stuart: Is that happening now? You are saying you can draw a conceptual model that might be sustainable and then saying that vital bits of it are not happening, or you are not aware of it happening, whilst we are nonetheless pressing ahead at European and UK level with setting targets without these standards in place. Is this unsustainable?

  Dr Weighell: Are the mechanisms in place or is it unsustainable?

  Q84  Mr Stuart: You have said that we need to get those market mechanisms or other mechanisms in place to prevent deforestation and are they about to come into place?

  Ms Magnus: I am aware of an initiative, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation, which will be discussed at the conference of parties in Bali under the UNFCCC Convention. This is a proposal tabled by Papua New Guinea, suggesting that developed countries pay developing countries to keep their ecosystems in tact. I think there is broad support amongst the main countries for this initiative and, as I said, it will be discussed in Bali in December and parties will discuss a mechanism to include this process into hopefully a post-Kyoto Treaty after 2012. I think that is a very hopeful initiative where I think the UK should do its utmost to support it.

  Q85  Mr Stuart: I think that that idea has been around for years, but the developed countries do not want to be paying rent to existing carbon sinks and that would create perverse incentives, but can I ask you about extending carbon and sustainability standards to agricultural commodities. This applies to biofuels and should it apply to agricultural commodities?

  Dr Weighell: It does seem unfair that a new industry should be subject to this scrutiny when agriculture and others are not. Logically, it should be applied to all industries and the extent to which that is done, I cannot really comment on, but I think with the biofuels, given it is a new industry and it is creating such a demand, there is an onus on us to get it right this time, if you like, and not make some of the mistakes.

  Q86  Mr Chaytor: There seems to be a growing scepticism about the potential of liquid biofuels, but an increasing interest about the potential for electric vehicles that are rechargeable via the domestic supply. I would like to ask both sets of witnesses about their views on the relative merits, costs and impacts of the production of liquid biofuels as against the generation of electricity from biomass.

  Ms Foley: I think that is a very fair point. When you look at Defra's Biomass Strategy, there is a hierarchy for different uses of biomass which is on the basis of the cost of CO2 abatement per tonne of CO2, biofuels for transport comes out right at the bottom actually, which does lead to a question mark when you look at it from a cost-effectiveness point of view: where is it best in terms of different forms of bioenergy to be placing most effort? It does raise questions as to why UK and European policy has focused solely or largely on biofuels for transport. I think the figures from Defra's own research show that biodiesel and bioethanol are twice as expensive in terms of tonnes of CO2 saved compared to biomass for heating, so you have to say that there must be a compelling case for other options that are more cost-effective, even when you bear in mind all the controls and safeguards that we have already spoken about.

  Q87  Mr Chaytor: You are saying that there is a Defra analysis of this. Is that the current state-of-the-art analysis and is that the place to go to look at the information?

  Ms Foley: That is what's published most recently, the UK Biomass Strategy which came out in May. I think it is that biomass hierarchy that we were saying you should be following through developing policy.

  Dr Weighell: I think it has been said perfectly there that hierarchy is very important because biofuels are at the bottom of the hierarchy in this country and the production of heat from biomass is at the top, so it is important to start in the hierarchy at the right place. It is important not only for us to use it, but, if we are looking at the overseas suppliers, we should be encouraging them to use the same hierarchy and not to start from the bottom, that we should be applying the same principles globally that we should apply at home.

  Q88  Mr Chaytor: Where does genetic modification come in all of this because the figures that are contained presumably in the Defra Biomass Strategy are based on conventional assumptions of agricultural production, but, if biomass crops were to be genetically modified, the productivity presumably would be increased significantly and, therefore, their position in the hierarchy would move up rapidly?

  Dr Weighell: Certainly there is research into plant breeding, which is non-genetic, by improving strains and GMOs to improve, for example, oils in rapeseed, to change the oil composition and make it more suitable for biodiesel rather than food consumption. There is work in cereals which makes them almost oven-ready and they have the enzymes embedded in them which will start fermentation, so there are mechanisms in place to increase yields, but I do not necessarily think that that will move biofuels up the hierarchy, but it will improve yields and all sorts of things, so I do not know whether it will actually move it up the hierarchy or not; it depends. There is one question about GMOs, that they do have the potential to increase yields and the question is to what extent in the European Union we will be willing to use them and to what extent we should refuse to use them when it might improve yields and might reduce our imports, so there is a whole issue there about the extent to which we should use them, but whether it would change their role in the hierarchy, I do not actually know.

  Ms Foley: We have not done any particular research on that.

  Q89  Mr Caton: Following on from what you have just said about the value of biofuels, there has been some research recently published that actually questions the whole rationale of using biofuels to reduce emissions from road transport. In these circumstances, should the Government be pressing ahead with promoting the use of biofuels for transport or should they hold back until the picture is a lot clearer?

  Ms Foley: We want to emphasise obviously the importance of standards and safeguards which we have already spoken about, but also the importance of recognising that biofuels for transport is only one very small part of what we need to do to reduce emissions from road transport and obviously deal particularly with the climate change effects. It may be more interesting to look at the role for future European standards in relation to vehicle efficiency, and where those debates are going. The UK Government has been quite active in pushing those discussions, as well as other options, which you will be all too familiar with in relation to the demand for transport, road pricing and so-called "softer" options as well, car clubs, cycling, et cetera, so I think it is important to view it as just part of a range of options, a package of measures that should be employed to look at minimising carbon emissions from road transport.

  Dr Weighell: Where the Government should hold back is for the Government. Targets have been set and what we are concerned about is how you meet those targets in a sustainable fashion, and targets are important to move things forward. I think, as has been said, there are all sorts of other mechanisms which would be equally as good as using biofuels, but biofuels is one option. I think one thing that we would say is that, in setting targets, we need not only to set targets realistically, but flexibly so that, if we see that the impacts that arise from these targets are unexpected and worse than feared, we should be able to roll back some of those targets so, if we set a 10% target and we see that 5% is having a more severe impact, we need the ability to actually pull back and say, "Actually we need to change them". Ms Magnus: The 10% target is not set in stone. It is a politically agreed target, but it was agreed under the condition that it is achieved in a sustainable way, so, if evidence is now emerging that it is very unlikely to achieve in a sustainable way, we need to revise the target and adjust it accordingly.

  Q90  Martin Horwood: Or encourage sustainability, I suppose. One of our witnesses that is talking later from the University of Leeds asks an even more fundamental question which is really, setting aside rain forests and things like that, that, if you have any given plot of land, it is actually more efficient in terms of carbon reduction to just reforest it rather than grow biofuels on it. Do you think that is true for the best and the worst biofuels?

  Dr Weighell: I have read some of the evidence and I would have to say, intuitively, and that is not evidence, but it is my feeling, if you bear in mind the carbon retained in soil, the carbon actually sitting in natural biomass, intuitively, that is going to provide a better solution than an industrial process which changes the soil function, removes the natural vegetation cover and then goes through the process to produce biofuel. Now, that is not—

  Q91  Martin Horwood: I am sorry, I am not talking about removing vegetation because that then does tilt it one way specifically. If you have a piece of set-aside land or something like that—

  Dr Weighell: Leave it as it is.

  Q92  Martin Horwood: Well, no, reforest it was his suggestion.

  Dr Weighell: I would think again, intuitively, that the carbon that is stored in that biomass and the continued function of that is more effective than transforming it into biofuel use, but it depends where you are on the hierarchy, and I do not know for certain, but the evidence is starting to—

  Q93  Martin Horwood: Is that true that, if the sort of the jatrophas and the short-rotation coppice were lower, then the more—

  Dr Weighell: It is less true of things like short-rotation coppice than it is of, say, rapeseed or cereals and, as you go into the different crop, short rotation crops have a much higher yield and are in a sense closer to the natural system than the highly intensive agricultural system, so you have to look at where you are on that scale. Jatropha is slightly different. The evidence base is growing to that effect, I think, that the natural function is quite important.

  Chairman: Well, thank you very much indeed. We have some very useful opinions and information there.

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