Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Biosciences Federation


  0.1  The Biosciences Federation (BSF) is a registered charity (no. 1103894) that was established in 2002 as a single authority representing the UK's biological expertise, providing independent opinion to inform public policy and promoting the advancement of the biosciences. The Federation is actively working to influence national and European policy and strategy in biology-based research (including funding and the interface with other disciplines) and in university and school teaching. It is also concerned with the translation of research into benefits for society, and with the impact of legislation and regulations on the ability of scientists to operate effectively.

  0.2  The Federation brings together the strengths of 43 member organisations (including the Institute of Biology) and 39 additional affiliated societies. This represents a cumulative membership of over 70,000 individuals, together covering the full spectrum of biosciences from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology, to ecology, taxonomy and environmental science.

  0.3  The following panel was convened to consider the environmental impact and sustainability of biofuels:

Prof. Richard Bateman (BSF, Chair/Rapporteur)

Dr Phillipa Bell (Royal Society of Chemistry)

Dr Paul Burgess (Cranfield University)

Dr Susan Cheyne (Zoology, University of Oxford)

Prof. Roland Clift (University of Surrey)

Prof. Geoff R Dixon (Institute of Horticulture)

Prof. Jim A Harris (Cranfield)

Dr Jeff Hardy (Royal Society of Chemistry)

Dr Harry Huyton (RSPB)

Lynn Jones MP (Parliamentary Committee, Defra)

Prof. Ian S Macfarlane (SAMS)

Prof. Joe Morris (Cranfield University)

Dr Stuart Shales (University of the West of England)

1.  Executive summary

  We advocate a cautious approach to deployment of biofuels in the UK, and to their import from abroad, because:

    (1)  there has been insufficient time to conduct adequate research, and

    (2)  what research has been conducted suggests that, for most fuels in most circumstances, (a) the likely environmental impact of biofuels has been under-estimated and (b) the likely carbon-economy benefits have been over-estimated. Specifically:

    When calculating carbon economies it is essential to consider (a) the environmental context of carbon sequestration and release, and (b) indirect carbon costs such as equipment manufacture, transport of fuels, and climate-changing by-product emissions. Within the UK, no currently available biofuel appears financially advantageous over fossil fuels and, more crucially, none appears carbon-neutral (ie fully sustainable) using current technology.

  In Britain, displacing current food crops would inevitably lead to increased importation of foodstuffs from abroad, presumably negating any carbon gains offered by biofuels, and generating biofuels on land currently set aside for nature/biodiversity or recreation/tourism would further erode and impoverish a landscape already hugely altered by man's activities. Promotion of one or two biofuels derived from a severely limited range of raw materials (notably elephant grass) would have a particularly strong negative impact on our landscape and society, without improving the diversity or reliability of our fuel supplies or increasing rural employment. In developing countries, biofuels potentially distort far more strongly national economies; when combined with typically weaker development restrictions, they are already leading to greatly accelerated habitat destruction and social unrest.

  We conclude that biofuels may rarely be an efficient solution to energy provision at anything more than a local scale. Small-scale experimental projects, using a variety of raw materials sourced locally (some recycled) and technologies, and yielding a range of energy-rich products, appear to be the most appropriate present response, in both the developed and developing countries (notably generating bioethanol from sugar cane in Brazil). In Britain, various solid materials (wood, pulp, straw) may offer the most immediate benefits, whereas large-scale cultivation of microbes may prove viable in the longer term.

  More generally, biofuels are unlikely to make more than a modest contribution to ameliorating climate change, even though this has been the primary motivation for their development. Although we agree with the unprecedented political emphasis now placed on this crucial environmental challenge, we perceive global climate change as a chronic problem requiring urgent and effective counter-measures but not as a bona fide crisis necessitating instant, potentially poorly informed responses. Unfortunately, the present approach of setting arbitrary targets for changes in a very limited range of quantified parameters (eg carbon dioxide emissions) is more consistent with crisis management, and appears counter-productive, given present limitations on knowledge. Rather, a measured, carefully planned international research programme is required. The benefits of biofuels relative to alternative approaches, notably energy conservation and ecological restoration, need more careful consideration.

  Although climate change and carbon footprints have become common parlance among UK citizens, as yet there is remarkably little public knowledge of biofuels and their implications, suggesting that the lessons of public reaction to genetic modification in the late 1990s have still not been learned. Honest and open debate is required and, as with GM, the public should retain the ultimate right to reject the development of a radically altered "biofuelscape" across rural Britain. These issues emphasize the urgent need to develop a more coherent strategy to manage the British (and global) landscape, taking into account both the carbon and fiscal economies and commanding support from all interested parties.

2.  Introduction

  2.1  The Biosciences Federation had begun its own investigation into biofuels prior to the initiation of the present inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). Recognising that several other eminent bodies were already considering general issues surrounding biofuels, the Federation decided that the greatest lacuna in current knowledge was the likely environmental impact of biofuels, particularly on the UK. Our panel was convened, and Terns of Reference compiled, with this objective in mind, and this emphasis inevitably coloured our response to the somewhat broader remit of the EAC inquiry.

  2.2  We acknowledge that climate change has become the highest-profile science-related issue on the political agenda—certainly in the environmental (as opposed to biomedical) realm—and we predict that it will continue to occupy that position for the foreseeable future. Thus, we share the EAC's enthusiasm for further exploring the potential contribution of biofuels to sustainable energy and remediation of climate change.

  2.3  Given the complexity of the issues, some crucial lacunae in our current knowledge, and the constraints on the length of this document, we have focused as much on clarifying and prioritizing issues as on providing unequivocal answers to questions.

  2.4  When discussing sustainability of biofuels, definitions of four terms are especially crucial:

    biofuels: Non-fossil organic matter (biomass) used to generate energy either directly or indirectly (cf. EAC definition).

    sustainable: The degree to which the Earth's resources can be exploited without causing long-term damage to the environment (Chamber's Dictionary).

    renewable: A resource that has the potential to avoid depletion on a human timescale. This definition is relatively uncontentious for physical sources of energy (wind, tidal, hydro-, geothermal, solar) but it is less clearly applicable to biomass, where the potential for genuine renewal is rarely realized in practice. Unlike physical renewables, biological renewables can be stored prior to use for at least brief periods, and so are not subject to the radical short-term fluctuations in potential energy generation inherent in wind, water or solar power, nor do they incur the long-term contamination penalties inherent in nuclear power.

    carbon neutral: Carbon released during energy production is balanced by carbon that has previously been sequestered in the fuel source(s) that are being utilised. A crucial codicil is that all relevant factors must be taken into account; in particular, estimates of carbon released should include indirect as well as direct usage. To give one example, solar energy is unquestionably renewable, but it is questionably sustainable or carbon neutral, depending on local conditions, because of the large amount of carbon-derived energy required to manufacture solar cells using current technology.

  2.5  Much progress has been achieved in recent years in better understanding carbon cycling in general and its relationship with climate in particular. Discussions have usefully standardized around tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent as the basic unit of comparison. However, it is important to remember that (1) the effect of a tonne of carbon dioxide depends heavily on where it is released into the environment and (2) other chemicals in the environment also contribute substantially to climate change. For example, the aviation industry frequently offers the defence that its carbon dioxide production remains modest relative to road transport. This statement ignores the fact that a tonne of carbon dioxide released at the cruising altitude of a modern aircraft has a far more profound effect on climate than a tonne emitted at ground level, especially when this is reinforced by the effects of vapour trails. Similarly, the two main biofuels presently used in road vehicles, bioethanol and biodiesel, differ in their gaseous emissions; most notably, biodiesel emits significant amounts of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. Accurate carbon accounting is the greatest challenge currently faced by those of us seeking effective remedies to climate change, given the vast number of factors involved and the complexity of their interactions.

3.  Categorisation and potential sources of biofuels, with particular reference to the UK

  3.1  The primary dichotomy within biofuels is between solid (ligno-cellulosic) and liquid/gaseous biofuels, though in practice the categories overlap; in particular, solid sources need not necessarily be utilized directly, but can instead themselves be converted into liquids or gases. Liquid/gaseous end-products include bioethanol, longer-chain alcohols, biodiesel, hydrogen and biogas (dominantly methane). As a crude generalization, end-products yielding the highest energy release are also more complex and/or energy-consuming to manufacture (eg ethanol versus longer-chain alcohols), and those yielding the lowest energy output are the bulkiest and thus most expensive to transport (eg woody biofuels). The energy cost of transporting fuels is least for sea transport, then rail, then road, and finally air.

  3.2  Recent discussions on UK biofuels have collectively identified the following contrasting "feedstocks" for, and end-products of, biofuel generation:

    —  Arable cultivation of annual crops for bioethanol production (eg wheat/barley grain and/or straw, maize, sugar-beet: closest tropical analogue is sugar cane).

    —  Arable cultivation of annual crops for biodiesel production (eg rape, castor, sunflower; biofuels are also generated at a smaller scale from their by-products, notably rape-based cooking oils and olive waste: closest tropical analogues are palm oil, soybean).

    —  Arable cultivation of more novel (ie less "domesticated") perennial crops for bioethanol production or solid fuel use (eg the elephant grass Miscanthus, short-rotation coppicing of willows/poplars: closest tropical analogues include bamboo; also grasslands and peat-rich wetlands).

    —  Forestry explicitly oriented toward direct (solid fuel combustion) or indirect (microbial digestion) generation of energy (tropical equivalents often consist of irreplaceable [semi-]natural forests).

    —  Bulk microbial degradation of biological by-products (eg cellulose/lignin, faecal matter from humans and/or farm animals), most commonly producing biogas (dominantly methane) or, less frequently, hydrogen.

    —  Bulk cultivation of bacteria/freshwater micro-/meso-algae for subsequent microbial degradation.

    —  Bulk cultivation of macro-algae in the marine realm for subsequent anaerobic fermentation.

  3.3  These various sources contrast strongly in advantages and constraints, and most are heavily context-dependent, resisting attempts to develop general solutions. Below, we highlight a few of the more crucial issues raised by these options, initially focusing on the UK and Europe but later adopting a more global perspective. Considering these issues requires estimating the optimal balance of:

    —  energy produced versus energy consumed by pesticides/fungicides/fertilizers;

    —  food production versus biofuel production;

    —  diversity of materials and/or use against the economy of scale;

    —  indirect use for refining transport fuels versus direct use for combustion.

4.  Low-tech versus high-tech biofuel production: the threshold effect

  4.1  Thus far, the UK's response to biofuels has been dictated by the interaction of policy-related targets set by the British and European parliaments with economic factors. The EU aims to achieve 20% renewable energy, and 15% of transport to be biofuels, by 2020. Within the UK, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation Programme (RTFO: April 2008) requires 5% of all road and marine transport fuel to be renewable-sourced by 2010 and 10% by 2020. At present, the primary means of achieving this objective is to blend biofuels into existing fossil fuels—typically diluting petrol with 5% bioethanol and diesel with 5% biodiesel. These low levels of bioadditives do not require expensive modifications to vehicle engines (though they are unsuitable for aircraft), and are a low-cost option that requires little thought or action on the part of the consumer. However, moving beyond this very modest level of biofuel usage brings much greater challenges and requires more substantial and considered investment.

  4.2  Extending beyond these low proportions of biofuels requires at least some hardware modification. This is typically relatively cheap up to mixtures of approximately one-third biofuels to two-thirds fossil fuels, but becomes more expensive and irreversible thereafter—a statement that also applies to the use of methane or hydrogen gases in vehicles. For example, bioethanol production is far more effective if the distillate can be burned in a hydrous condition (azeotrope), avoiding the need for an energy-consuming dehydration procedure. However, burning azeotrope would require substantial modification of combustion engines. Thus, stepping up beyond low-level investment in biofuels for transport requires a guaranteed consistent and widespread source of the chosen fuels—in other words, their widespread use would exert the same dependency on specific biofuels that we currently suffer with regard to fossil fuels. Nor are supplies of biofuels likely to be any less vulnerable to changes in the natural (eg climate), economic (eg competition with food) and political (eg embargoes) environments than are fossil fuels.

  4.3  With regard to generating home-grown non-vehicular energy, the UK's present and immediate desire for input from biofuels is best met by similar low-tech, low-cost approaches, with a likely emphasis on solid rather than liquid raw materials. At present, France leads Europe in its utilization of solid biomass, annually consuming 10 million tonnes oil equivalent of biomass, dominantly as logs and pellets/chips. In contrast, the UK presently consumes less than 0.5 million tones per annum. The UK government plans to increase consumption in England alone to two million tonnes of wood per annum by 2020. This target may not sound ambitious, but it constitutes approximately 50% of the unharvested forest products and other ligno-cellulosic materials presently available in the UK. This radical increase in consumption is doubtfully economically viable. Certainly, it would require extensive planning to establish contracts with a plethora of landowners, together with an adequate infrastructure of transport and processing plants. It would also likely impact negatively on conservation, as a substantial proportion of our biodiversity relies directly or indirectly on access to decaying wood. And its contribution to carbon dioxide abatement is far less than if the forest were allowed to stand, retaining rather than releasing their sequestered carbon.

  4.4  Several different approaches have been advocated for utilising solid fuels. Both the carbon and fiscal economics are much stronger if utilization is local, involving limited transport and utilization in local heating or CHP plants. However, CHP plants, which drive a generator via gasification of biomass, have not yet been scaled down to an ideal size. This model of local consumption is already used widely in Continental Europe. Even then there are technological constraints; systems that can consume a wide range of raw materials are more flexible and potentially carbon-efficient, but this is technologically challenging, encouraging either (a) the development of many small plants rather than few larger ones or (b) the use of biofuels to supplement existing technologies (eg co-firing wood chips and pellets with a majority of non-renewable fossil fuels, most commonly coal, in existing power stations). This statement also applies to various attempts to refine solid materials into liquids or gases. Mixed organic matter has proven a serious challenge to all forms of enzymic digestion, and generation of liquid fuels or hydrogen from ligno-cellulose via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is likely to remain expensive and inefficient.

  4.5  Perhaps because many of the approaches suggested for generating biofuels consume materials of relatively low fiscal value, at least some of which are usually described as "waste", there has been remarkably little discussion of the need to dispose of waste from the biofuel production process itself. In fact, most approaches generate substantial quantities of incombustible and/or unrefinable residues. These are unlikely to find any further industrial or agrarian application, and so will require physical disposal, preferably close to the site of use.

  4.6   Other relatively low-tech approaches to generating biofuels, such as recycling cooking oil as biodiesel and generating methane-rich biogas from animal faeces, are commonly dismissed as merely filling limited "niche markets". In practice, this phrase typically conveys the idea that the amounts of biomass consumed and energy generated are too small to make a substantial difference to carbon balances. However, we note that they offer additional advantages in terms of reduced environmental pollution, as well as integrating well with various energy conservation programmes. Collectively, such approaches could have a significant effect, incurring fewer negative consequences than other, more grandiose and higher-tech schemes.

5.  Potential for "new generation" biofuels

  5.1  There is increasing discussion of "second", "third" or even "fourth generation" biofuels. We have not been able to distinguish satisfactorily among these categories, and instead prefer to distinguish between fuels of the kind discussed above, where we have a working knowledge of the relevant technologies and the likely carbon balances, and other potential approaches to biofuel generation that remain more speculative. The most notable of these approaches involve developing aquatic crops, either macroscopic or microscopic.

  5.2  Because of its extent and its productivity, the marine realm is the single largest carbon sink, but its productivity has never been harnessed as a direct and substantial source of energy. Marine macroalgae ("seaweeds") are an abundant and energy-rich substrate that is relatively homogeneous and so amenable to direct combustion or, perhaps more productively, to microbial degradation. However, habitats suitable for growth and harvesting are confined to our coasts—a narrow and especially environmentally sensitive zone. In practice, environmental concerns would likely lead to highly restricted harvesting, which would in turn greatly reduce the actual (as opposed to potential) contribution of macroalgal cultivation to biofuel production (ie this approach seems likely to become yet another "niche market").

  5.3  Marine microalgae play a pre-eminent role in carbon sequestration directly through photosynthesis, and indirectly though long-term storage as fossil fuels and limestones. Thus, in theory, their exceptional biomass could represent a tremendous raw material for biofuel production. It is the practicality of cultivation, harvesting and transport to likely sites of utilization that constitute a potentially insurmountable barrier. Some form of cultivation might be considered in the inshore zones, but even here the practicalities appear prohibitive. Containment of microbes is far less straightforward than, for example, caging salmon. Also, although salmon farming is pursued only on a small scale in the UK and elsewhere, it has become highly controversial because of the sharp reduction in biodiversity engendered in the surrounding habitat by various forms of pollution; marine cultivation of microalgal blooms would likely have similar effects.

  5.4  Microbial growth in ponds or vats on land currently appears to offer a more realistic option, not least because the "farm" could be placed immediately adjacent to the refinery and/or power generator. However, there would likely be considerable environmental impacts resulting from the construction of these facilities and from the generation of substantial quantities of wastes (solid, liquid and/or gas). Also, like conventional crops, microbial cultivation raises the potential benefits (or spectre, depending on one's viewpoint) of substantially increasing yields through GM technology. In our view, land-based microbial farming has not yet received sufficient attention; it merits urgent and substantial research investment to better assess its potential and practicality, not least because this is an area where technological advances could prove especially helpful.

6.  Biofuels versus biodiversity

  6.1  It is not surprising that the strongest concerns regarding the development of biofuels, both in the UK and abroad, have been expressed by conservation bodies sensu lato. In order to generate one third of the 20% of renewable energy target set by the European Union for 2020, an estimated 20% of Britain's agricultural land would need to be occupied by crops being developed specifically and exclusively as biofuels, notably willows (Salix) and elephant grass (Miscanthus). At present, there is a dominantly economically-motivated resistance to planting the relatively high-yielding willow/poplar due to the existence of an unproductive lead-in period of a minimum of five years before cropping begins and a minimum three-year cropping rotation thereafter, thus placing yet greater emphasis on elephant grass. It is difficult to envisage how these crops, particularly elephant grass, could be mitigated to have anything other than a profound (and largely negative) effect on both biodiversity and landscape.

  6.2  At present, both the carbon and fiscal balances incurred by these crops are highly questionable. This uncertain (and potentially negative) "profit margin" will encourage growers to attempt to maximize productivity by aiming to maximize the energy-efficiency, density and extent of the crop. Thus, we can expect to see up to 20% of Britain's agricultural land devoted to extensive areas of these crops, typically presented as monocultures. Although many existing crops are also monocultures, willow and elephant grass differ from these crops in several characteristics. In particular, they are 3-5 m tall and have correspondingly deep roots. The combination of their height and density will greatly reduce biodiversity, while hedgerows will at best be invisible and at worst shaded out. Both crops are relatively water-intensive and so are liable to exacerbate water deficits during drought periods. Maintaining acceptable levels of soil structure and fertility are also serious concerns, particularly with regard to elephant grass.

  6.3  Nonetheless, these biofuel source-crops have been selected in part because of their ability to thrive in poorer marginal land, presumably to minimise competition with food production for agricultural land use. The most obvious source of such land is set-aside, which ironically is increasingly achieving its primary aims of increasing both rural biodiversity and flexibility of land use. However, in order to maximize the amount of marginal land that can be brought into cultivation for biofuels, there will be a strong motivation to develop genetically modified (GM) crops. GM could be used to increase the efficiency of biofuel crops in several different ways: increased efficiency of photosynthesis and nutrient uptake, increased tolerance to drought, salt and/or heavy metals, increased content of energy-rich biochemicals, altered growth patterns to increase biomass and/or ease harvesting. Taken together, such improvements would increase the energy output of the crop and decrease the energy input (ie expended in applying fertilizers, and in harvesting and subsequent transport). Given the questionable carbon efficiency and fiscal benefits offered by these crops, and competition with food production, it seems unlikely that the temptation to deploy GM biofuels crops will be resisted, despite ongoing public concerns. Thus, these crops represent several kinds of potential negative impact on biodiversity, both direct and indirect.

  6.4  The development of such a "biofuelscape" would also have a significant impact on the general appearance and aesthetics of the British countryside—an impact potentially greater than any change since the Second World War. There is a clear risk of a consequent negative effect on tourism. Other potential aesthetic changes to the landscape include constructing additional roads to transport biofuels (both raw materials and refined products) and the establishment of large numbers of small-scale processing plants and/or small numbers of large-scale processing plants. Nor are we aware of any evidence that rural employment levels would be enhanced as a result of increased cultivation of biofuels in the UK.

  6.5  The unified and vehement opposition expressed by all mainstream environmentalist organizations to the RTFO programme in April 2007 amply demonstrated the depth of scepticism regarding the credibility of the biofuels policies and strategies currently being pursued by the British and European governments.

7.  Biofuels in the tropics: potentially disastrous at both source and sink

  7.1  Several recent reviews have identified bioethanol production for sugarcane in Brazil as the most effective current biofuels programme. Most observers agree that the extensive development of biofuels in Brazil has had a genuinely positive effect, both financially and in terms of achieving a genuinely positive carbon balance (indeed, some observers consider this to be the only biofuels initiative that currently generates a genuine carbon surplus rather than a deficit when all relevant factors are taken into account). Sugar cane is cultivated intensively and processed via small local distilleries into bioethanol that themselves utilize the lignified tissues of the sugar cane as distillation fuel. Much of the energy-rich bioethanol produced is used in vehicles within Brazil, and the remainder exported as a significant component of Brazil's international trade.

  7.2  However, the present net carbon surplus generated via this system does not guarantee long-term sustainability. It is questionable whether Brazilian soils will sustain such intensive monocultures in the longer term, most likely necessitating cooption of further land for biofuels production. In other tropical regions, most notably south-east Asia, the rate of annexation of (semi-)natural vegetation (most commonly forests) has increased rapidly, driven by the immediate economic rewards provided by biofuels (in this case, most commonly palm oil and, to a much lesser extent, bamboos). The immediate economic rewards are considerable, since the original forests provide both timber and biofuels (via conversion of wood pulp to bioethanol) and they are then wholly replaced with oil palm monocultures that yield oil that is limited in quantity but exceptionally rich in energy. The effect on conservation (including charismatic keystone species such as the orang-utan) has been catastrophic, and is widely regarded as one of the great ecological disasters of the early 21st century.

  7.3  These examples amply illustrate two important principles. Firstly, carbon balance calculations never consider the diversity or fitness of the species in which the carbon is sequestered. Secondly, whether biofuels are truly sustainable depends on the yardstick with which they are compared. For example, growing sugar cane for biofuel production on Brazilian terrain previously used for unquestionably unsustainable cattle ranching may constitute a move toward sustainability, whereas replacing virgin rain forest with sugar cane would constitute a move away from sustainability. Also, it remains virtually impossible to determine whether a particular biofuel has been generated sustainably (or indeed whether its cultivation has led to human rights abuses, as is often claimed). Certainly, any regulation of imported biofuels should attempt to consider both the longer term history of the productive land and account for the entire carbon cycle.

  7.4  As a general rule, biofuels are most carbon-efficient when utilized as close as possible to source. However, because of the high price currently commanded by biofuels, particularly bioethanol, it is tempting to sell refined biofuels to developed countries. Such lucrative sales can have a strongly distorting effect on the economy of the source country, particularly where (as is often the case) social and economic planning is basic and decisions on land-use are made primarily to ensure the short-term financial gain of the landowner or occupier. A few well-planned and generally small-scale biofuels initiatives have undoubtedly contributed to poverty alleviation in some developing countries, but in the majority of cases the beneficiaries have been few, the projects serving merely to increase the gap separating rich from poor. As many developing countries have difficulty adequately feeding their populations (in contrast with the scaled-down intensive agriculture that now characterizes many developed countries), competition for land-use between biofuel generation and food production has proven especially problematic.

  7.5  When the above factors are considered together, it is difficult to make a strong case for extensive and increasing transport of biofuels among distant countries in general, and from the developing to the developed world in particular. Like charity, biofuels begin at home.

8.  Policy and politics: the bigger picture

  8.1  Current discussions regarding sustainability and climate change, of which biofuels are merely one of many key issues, epitomize several of the key challenges facing early 21st century politics. Climate change policy has undergone a remarkable transformation. For decades it was the preserve of environmentalists, but a series of international summit meetings from the early 1990s onwards pushed the issue inexorably up the political agenda. Climate change and sustainability are now, rightly, the pre-eminent environmental concern of politicians operating at the UK, European and global scales. In many countries, the concerns long expressed by scientists and more recently by politicians are now echoed by the voting public, who are increasingly inclined to support calls for effective action, at least in principle.

  8.2  However, if the British public are to remain supportive of the UK government's determination to addressed climate change issues, it is important that they are addressed directly and honestly (in this context, much can be learned from the failure of the UK government's attempts in the 1990s to convince the British public that the benefits of GM crops were likely to outweigh the threats that they posed; often simplistic reassurance and positivism have rightly proved to be insufficient incentives). Actions necessary to engage the public include:

    —  establishing and retaining (without subsequent redefinition) key terms to describe and monitor the processes and consequences of climate change;

    —  explaining the nature of, and reasoning that underlies, the UK's responses to the global threats posed by climate change (although the public are increasingly aware of climate change, few are presently familiar with the potential remedial role that could be played by biofuels);

    —  avoiding exaggerated claims of the efficacy of any proposed remedies (eg recent misconceived statements that extensive cultivation of Miscanthus as a biofuel crop would be aesthetically pleasing and would benefit biodiversity);

    —  consulting the public regarding whether environmental risks should be taken in order to improve the likely effectiveness of attempts to remedy climate change (eg using GM technology to enhance biofuel crops).

  8.3  The genuinely global and long-term nature of these issues does not naturally lend itself to the smaller scale and shorter term decision-making that typifies the political arena. It is misleading to refer to global warming per se as a "crisis" (though it certainly does precipitate more spatio-temporally restricted crises, such as the 2006 flooding of New Orleans). The long lag-time that will inevitably separate any actions that we take in an attempt to ameliorate climate change should be seen as advantageous, not because it could permit continued complacency but rather because it allows the luxury of time for effective, internationally networked research and planning prior to taking concerted action. Biofuels barely figured in detailed assessments of land use in the UK as little as two years ago, yet already plans are well advanced for large-scale deployment. We are concerned that this haste is motivated more by existing political commitments, most notably to the EU, than by well-informed planning or likely achievement of the stated goals.

  8.4  Most governments decide whether to act on specific high-priority issues primarily through financial considerations. This is problematic in the case of biofuels, as the two biofuels most widely used in the temperate zone, bioethanol and biodiesel, are presently 1.5 to 3 times more expensive to produce that their equivalents based on fossil fuels. Moreover, costs are higher in the UK than in the rest of Europe. Current estimates differ appreciably, but all studies seen by us suggest that it will be many years before the production costs of renewable and non-renewable hydrocarbons converge (convergence likely relying more heavily on increasing costs of fossil fuels than on decreasing costs of biofuels). Yet further delays in implementing remedial actions will make global warming far harder to ameliorate. Clearly, we need to progress decision-making on such issues beyond the point where immediate, local cost estimates dictate both policies and actions.

  8.5  Likewise, governments and/or inter-governmental bodies in the developed world have evolved broadly similar approaches to encouraging their citizens to support decisions that are considered likely to help meet the government's goals, within a free-market environment. The current preferred approach is based on the arbitrary target—set quantitative milestones that are intended to alter a specified parameter by a specified amount by a specified date, but leave to others the challenge of devising a strategy for achieving those goals (the Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas emissions are a classic example of this approach). This strategy can be effective if the goals and milestones reflect strong data and detailed planning but it can be profoundly negative if this essential groundwork has not been laid, so that key discussions among experts occur after the targets have been set. Sadly, the EU's 2010 and 2020 targets for biofuel usage fall into the second category. Subsidies also continue to influence responses within the EU, where they still favour biodiesel production, leading one contributor to this document to describe biodiesel as a "short-term aberration" driven by "perverse incentives." Also, unsatisfactory experiences with biofuels have already caused organizations as disparate as London Transport and Unilever to withdraw their previous support for particular biofuels schemes.

  8.6  Several factors encourage us to recommend a cautious approach to deployment of biofuels in the UK, and to their import from abroad. At present, no currently available biofuel appears financially advantageous over fossil fuels. More crucially, none appears carbon-neutral (ie fully sustainable) using current technology. Displacing current food crops would inevitably lead to increased importation of foodstuffs from abroad, presumably negating any carbon gains offered by the biofuels. Occupying land currently set aside for nature or recreation/tourism would further erode and impoverish a landscape already hugely altered by man's activities. Promotion of one or two biofuels derived from a severely limited range of raw materials would have a particularly strong impact on our landscape and society, without improving the diversity or reliability of our fuel supplies or increasing rural employment. Rather, small-scale experimental projects, using a variety of raw materials and technologies and yielding a range of energy-rich products, appear to be the most appropriate present response to exploring biofuels, in both the developed and developing countries. This recommendation is based partly on the urgent need for better information and technologies, but also on the recognition that, on present evidence, biofuels may rarely be an efficient solution to energy provision at anything more than a local scale.

  8.7  Recent assessment by the McKinsey group of carbon dioxide abatement measures likely to cost less than 40 euros per ton in 2030 showed that 45% of the potential abatement related to power and manufacturing, 25% to buildings and transportation and the remaining 30% to farming, agriculture and waste. About 25% of predicted emissions reductions would come from "free" efficiency measures that carry no net life-cycle cost (eg building insulation) and about 50% lie in developing rather than developed countries, most such schemes requiring only low-tech solutions. Of these options, the most potentially effective is protecting, planting and replanting forests, primarily to sequester carbon rather than to provide biofuels.

  8.8  Thus, many environmentalists argue that, in both the temperate and tropical zones, ecological restoration is a more sustainable response to climate change in general, and to carbon dioxide release in particular, than is biofuel production. Much of the discussion of ecological restoration has concerned reafforestation, but this is not the only approach available. For example, it was recently calculated that the peatlands of England and Wales alone could maximally sequester 41,000 tonnes of carbon per annum, but at present they are instead estimated to be releasing annually 381,000 tonnes of carbon. This net loss of carbon to the atmosphere is attributed primarily to drainage ditches that were dug in the mid-20th century, ironically with the intention of improving the productivity of the land. Blocking those drains could be a cost-effective method of substantially reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels—a response that would likely have far less effect on the appearance or usage of our landscape than would any of the suggested biofuels initiatives.

  8.9  Clearly, it is important to weight biofuel production against other potential approaches to climate change remediation. It seems almost inevitable that our response will evolve to combine strategies for more sustainable fuel production with those to conserve energy and sequester carbon, including ecological restoration, but the relative impacts of these contrasting approaches are not yet sufficiently predictable. In this context, there is an urgent need to develop a more coherent strategy to manage the British (and global) landscape, commanding support from all interested parties.

9.  Chair's postscript

  9.1  The Chair wishes to conclude by noting that most discussions of climate change and sustainability address the symptoms rather than the root cause of environmental degradation. Specifically, there is inevitably a strong positive correlation between the number of humans inhabiting the Earth and the degree of environmental degradation that it sustains—very few human actions are genuinely sustainable (ie have no negative effect on the global environment). The potential benefits of increasing the efficiency of our usage of the Earth's resources, including biofuels, are far less profound than the potential benefits of breaking the present, near-ubiquitous global taboo on serious political discussions of population control. Indeed, the comparative success of international diplomacy in greatly raising the profile of climate change encourages me to believe that population control could similarly be highlighted in the not-too-distant future. Continued environmental degradation and reduced quality of life will in any case ultimately precipitate such debates, albeit surrounded by much controversy. Given the inevitably prolonged time-lag between introduction of effective measures to limit population growth and any ensuing reduction, it is desirable that discussions occur before, rather than after, the Earth's capacity to support its human population with an acceptable quality of life is surpassed.

30 September 2007


Biomass Task Force (2006). Report to government.

Biosciences Federation/Royal Society of Chemistry (2006). The role of bioenergy. Response to the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. February 2006.

British Petroleum (2007). BP biofuels—a growing alternative.

Carbon Trust (2006). Biomass sector review for the Carbon Trust.

Clift, R (2007). Biofuels—a position paper. University of Surrey.

Department for Transport (2007). Briefing document on the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation Programme (RTFO).

Enkvist, P-A, Naucler, T & Rosander, J (2007). A cost curve for greenhouse gas reduction. McKinsey Quarterly 2007(1): 35-45.

Graves, A R & Morris, J (2007). Farm-gate financial analysis of bio-energy crops in Europe. Report prepared for EPOBIO: Realising the Economic Potential of Sustainable Resources—Bioproducts from Non-food Crops.

Henson, R (2006). Climate change. Rough Guides, London.

Larson, E D (2006). A review of life cycle analysis on liquid biofuel systemas for the transport sector. Energy for Sustainable Development 10(2).

Morris, J and six co-authors (2005). Agricultural futures and implications for the environment. Main Report, Defra Research Project IS0209. Cranfield University, Bedford. http//www.silsoe,

Righelto, R & Spracken, D V (2007). Carbon mitigation by biofuels or by saving and restoring forests? Science 317: 902.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (2004). Biomass as a renewable energy source.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 21 January 2008