Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 125 - 139)



  Q125  Chairman: Good morning and welcome. I know you have heard some of the previous session and some of the earlier session as well. We have got about half an hour, so I hope we can use the time productively. The note we had from the Biosciences Federation concluded that biofuels are rarely going to be an efficient energy source, other than on a local scale, and that in Britain solids like wood offer the biggest benefits. Given that, why do you think Britain and the EU are so keen on liquids?

  Professor Clift: I wish I could answer that; I was rather hoping you people would! I think it is quite transparent that the interest in the US has nothing to do with environmental performance, it has to do with offsetting imports and supporting farm activities. My suspicion—and I cannot back this up with evidence but it is certainly shared by other people—is that it is being promoted in the EU as a way of getting around the Common Agricultural Policy, quite simply. If there is scientific evidence which supports it, all I can say is I have never seen it.

  Chairman: That is a very clear and welcome answer. Thank you.

  Q126  Mr Stuart: Do you think the environmental risks associated with large-scale biofuel production will outweigh their potential benefits?

  Professor Clift: I have to give you the answer which starts, compared with what? There might be some environmental benefits sometimes associated with producing liquid biofuels for transport. What concerns me is that comparison is not made against other uses of resources, particularly land use. Looking ahead to some of the questions which are on your list, given that land is a scarce resource—I do not think there is any denying that—we should be looking for a way of using land which gives the maximum benefit in terms of energy yield and carbon offset. Quite simply, you do not get that with liquid biofuels. Lignocellulosics give much higher energy yields and there is much less energy consumed in processing them because the processing is limited to a bit of milling and drying and maybe some transport. If the principal objective is to reduce net carbon emissions, I have to say, in my assessment, liquid biofuels are not the way to do it.

  Q127  Mr Stuart: Some might argue you have to pump-prime the industry, you have to develop it and it has potential for the future and if it is at 5%—there is no evidence to show why that should be sustainable particularly—if it is small enough, it should be treated as something which can be justified.

  Professor Clift: I would agree that the biomass sector needs support. If you want my considered opinion on that, there is a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published three years ago and I was responsible for that study and wrote much of the report. If you look at the way the bioenergy sector, the biomass sector in particular, has developed elsewhere in Europe, in Austria, for example, it contributes 15% of primary energy, which is very many times the contribution of nuclear to the total energy mix in the UK. We are not saying we could necessarily reach the levels they have reached in Austria, but it is a resource which has not been developed. The reason it has not been developed is that the market has not developed because of conflicting policy, I have to say, and that is documented in the Royal Commission Report. I know plenty of farmers who would like to produce, for example, short-rotation coppice willow, but have found there are so many impediments they have withdrawn from even attempting.

  Q128  Mr Stuart: Going back to the biofuel issue, on the basis of your research, should there be a moratorium on expansion of the industry?

  Professor Clift: Of the liquid biofuels industry, frankly, yes.

  Q129  Dr Turner: Dr Spracklen, you have researched the relative benefits of biofuel production to habitat restoration in terms of efficiency of carbon savings. Could you summarise your findings for us?

  Dr Spracklen: Our analysis shows that reforestation is a more effective way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any of the liquid biofuels. This is particularly true in the tropics, but also true in temperate regions as well. As we heard this morning, if there are substantial areas of agricultural land which are not needed for food production, you could sequester more carbon by reforesting that area of land than using that area of land for biofuels. We also show that where existing natural forests are cleared to make way for biofuels, the large emissions of carbon dioxide which are released on the clearance of that forest negate any carbon saved by using a biofuel over a 30-year period. For many biofuels you have to grow biofuels for 50 to 100 years at least to save back the amount of carbon which was initially released when the forest was cleared.

  Q130  Dr Turner: Can you comment on how big a role habitat restoration has and what scope there is in a temperate country like the UK as opposed to the tropical rainforest, which is obvious?

  Dr Spracklen: In our work we did not analyse the potential scope in the UK for this or for the cost of it, but the costs of habitat restoration, even in the UK, are likely to be more cost-effective than UK biofuels where the costs are probably £20 to £100 per tonne of CO2, whereas the IPCC indicates that at £10 a tonne of CO2 large amounts of carbon could be sequestered through forest restoration. There are a number of NGOs that are funding carbon sequestration and habitat restoration in the tropics at about £10 to £15 per tonne of CO2.

  Q131  Dr Turner: In terms of the cost, do you think habitat restoration is a good measure compared with other greenhouse gas saving policies?

  Dr Spracklen: Yes, I would definitely agree with that statement. For the same costs of replacing 5% of transport fuels with biofuels, through forest restoration I think you could sequester a significantly larger fraction of carbon.

  Professor Bateman: Inevitably when you are talking about habitat restoration the focus is very much on forestry because of the clear gains, but your question was specifically about a temperate environment and the British countryside. My answer to you would be to think about the kind of landscape changes we saw during the 20th century in Britain as a result, for example, of the activities of the Forestry Commission, some of which we might now decry. Nonetheless, you can see profound changes which were made to our landscape during the 20th century, for example by draining the upland peatlands in order to grow some of these conifer forests. I now see us having an opportunity to develop a much more diverse landscape which is more in accord with the semi-natural landscape which preceded it with mixed forestry and with restoring some of those upland peatlands to peatlands. Recent NERC research, for example, shows that because of the draining which is taking place at the moment our peatlands are emitting substantial quantities of greenhouse gas, whereas if we cease to drain them and restore them to their original condition they will become a net sink of greenhouse gases instead. Of course, coal is basically compressed peat and locks in a phenomenal amount of carbon. I think there is a lot of opportunity for work within the British Isles along those lines to develop a much more interesting landscape.

  Professor Clift: I entirely agree, and I think that is entirely consistent with a policy of promoting lignocellulosic fuels rather than processed liquids. There is some rather good work done by Forest Research in Scotland in particular looking at the scope for mixed forest as a source of lignocellulosic fuel.

  Q132  Dr Turner: Would it be fair to suggest there is an intrinsic contradiction in Government policy at the moment in that it is promoting biofuels and, at the same time, advocating environmental protection and there is a degree of incompatibility between those policies?

  Professor Bateman: I would have said a very strong incompatibility, yes.

  Professor Clift: Which is, by the way, the reason we are delighted to come here today!

  Q133  Mark Lazarowicz: In the evidence just before you came to join us you heard reference to the article by Paul Crutzen, which I understand suggests that the nitrous oxide emissions from the use of fertilisers in biofuel production negate any greenhouse gas savings from the replacement of fossil fuels. Do you concur with that conclusion? Is that study robust enough for us to be concerned in that way?

  Professor Clift: I think the Crutzen paper has acquired a significance, understandable on account of its authorship, which, on my assessment, it does not have. There are, and everybody knows it, considerable uncertainties over nitrous oxide emissions from the cultivation of any crops. I would refer you to, and I brought a copy which I will leave with you, a review by Dr Eric Larsen of Princeton University published in June last year[29]. It is rather thorough, evaluative and gives you some actual figures for the range of variability, which we know about for nitrous oxide emissions from crops. There is a lot you could debate about Crutzen's methodology. Honestly, I do not think the paper is worth your time, but I think the Larsen paper is and I will leave it with you.

  Q134  Mark Lazarowicz: That will certainly be interesting. More generally on this area, do you think the reporting standards which will be adopted under the RTFO are robust in terms of their consideration of the lifecycle emissions from biofuels?

  Professor Clift: I do. Personally, I am quite happy with the way in which the lifecycle calculations are proposed. Unofficially I have been helping E4tech with it because I am also involved with the Carbon Trust carbon labelling programme, which has a lot of common features. I am quite sure the people who are developing those guidelines are well aware of the issues around the uncertainty over nitrous oxide emissions and they will be including things like the emissions associated with the production of fertiliser, which is something that unfortunately Crutzen leaves out and is quite a large part of the greenhouse gas balance over the complete production cycle. I have to say, that I am less comfortable in the certification of source simply because past experience with things like the Forest Stewardship Council has shown it is really quite easy for producers in certain developing countries to get certification by, quite bluntly, lying.

  Q135  Mr Caton: This is to the Biosciences Federation. You called for a more coherent strategy to manage the British and global landscape to address negative issues surrounding biofuels. What form would such a strategy take, and who would be responsible for developing it?

  Professor Bateman: I should probably answer that question first since I am afraid it was my wayward pen which formulated that particular combination of words. My view is we have the best mapped and best understood landscape in the world and that gives us a tremendous strength and an opportunity to be a world leader in landscape modelling and landscape management, but in order to do that effectively we need particularly strong science. We have already talked about uncertainty in the amount of nitrous oxide generated, which is critical to any kind of accountancy, of not of an order of magnitude, but of doubling the potential emission. If we were managing an economy, we would not accept an error of anything like that sort of level, so we really need more research to build up the scientific knowledge to reduce the error bars. I think cohesive models, which some institutes are developing at the present time, will give us a nice framework in order to do that. As you decrease those error bars on the different factors in the landscape model, you can start to predict in the same way we can now predict climate much more effectively than we could before. If we have an integrated carbon accountancy model with an economic accountancy model, we can become much more predictive and we can start to judge what the effect of a particular decision at that level will have on our landscape and that is what we cannot do at the present time. We have the power to do it if more resourcing is put into that area. I think we can do it. It is too soon to talk about an industry before we have a really good research base to explore in.

  Q136  Mr Caton: What about internationally? How can we better protect natural carbon sinks and, indeed, create new ones?

  Professor Bateman: I genuinely think by showing initiative ourselves. If our landscape is relatively small, is relatively well understood and we can become predictive about our landscape, we can then tackle much more effectively some of these more difficult landscapes we are dealing with in the tropical areas. The different factors in the boxes will change substantially because they are tropical areas, but the basic factors we have to take into account will be the same wherever on the globe we operate.

  Dr Spracklen: As we heard this morning, the reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries, the RED proposals which are currently going to be in negotiation in Bali in December, if these were adopted these would cause significant reductions in deforestation resulting in reductions in carbon emissions. I think the coalition of rainforest nations should be strongly supported in their proposals for this and that is very important.

  Q137  Mark Lazarowicz: Professor Bateman, in relation to the potential render with the UK, is there sufficient awareness and sufficient drive within the Government at the moment to take advantage of some of this potential?

  Professor Bateman: My own view is at the present time the Government is too strongly driven by arbitrary targets that it itself sets. I would like to see the kind of research we have been talking about this morning feeding into those targets rather than the targets then dictating what decisions are going to have to be made at a lower level. My analogy would be in a school playground where, it seems to me at the moment, a certain amount of policy is at the primary school level where all the boys in the playground are chasing the football, but we need a team where different players have different responsibilities. If we look at the front page of the newspapers in the last few days, we have seen funding concerns over Defra, we have seen Mr Brown voluntarily substantially increasing the renewables targets and we have seen some interesting discussion about Common Agricultural Policy subsidy reform. Those debates almost seem to have been held in isolation, whereas the topic we are discussing today to some extent unites those different issues.

  Professor Clift: As I indicated earlier on, if there is a scientific basis for the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, I do not know what it is and I have not seen it. My personal assessment is there will not be enough renewable certifiable transport fuel to meet the Obligation. I very much hope that if and when that crunch comes the response will not be to relax on certification, it will be to recognise that the Obligation was misconceived in the first place. I am being quite blunt.

  Chairman: We like blunt witnesses!

  Q138  Mr Stuart: Professor Clift, you sit on Defra's Science Advisory Panel, can you give us any insight into the workings of Government and why it has gone ahead with something with no scientific basis whatsoever?

  Professor Clift: I cannot, I have not been able to get it and I am pushing the new Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra to review policy on biofuels generally and transport fuels in particular.

  Q139  Chairman: If there is any help we can give with a freedom of information request, let us know.

  Professor Clift: Thank you.

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