Examination of Witnesses (Questions 125
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2007
CBE AND DR
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 suspicionand
I cannot back this up with evidence but it is certainly shared
by other peopleis 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 resourceI do not think
there is any denying thatwe 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 particularlyif
it is small enough, it should be treated as something which can
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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