Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2007
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
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
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.