Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 146)



  Q140  Dr Turner: Professor Clift, are there any of the biofuels currently available and in use that you would consider to be genuinely sustainable and genuinely beneficial environmentally?

  Professor Clift: Very, very small proportions. I am prepared to believe that the development of the Jatropha sector in Malawi has been beneficial to the economy of Malawi and the people of Malawi. It is never going to be an export crop, it is an import substitution. However, set against that, I am quite concerned that the more widespread development of Jatropha as a secondary biodiesel fuel could cause serious disruption. I am not alone, as I am sure you are aware. There are development organisations in India that are trying to suppress the development of the Jatropha sector. It is a structural problem. We are in a period where energy prices are high, food prices are arguably artificially low, growing energy crops link the two and if you are a farmer in Tamil Nadu, for example, you are likely to be tempted to go over to energy crops because you are going to get a better price for them, which, of course, reduces food production. As part of the readjustments globally which are going to be necessary, in my assessment food prices have to go up to be more in line with current energy prices. I hope in that readjustment not too much land is taken out of food production and put into energy crops because the effect could be globally disastrous.

  Q141  Dr Turner: What about sugarcane bioethanol, assuming no displacement?

  Professor Clift: I assume you know about the ILO—International Labour Office—study on labour practices in the Brazilian ethanol industry. Social benefit and decent working conditions are part of sustainability and, frankly, I do not think the Brazilian industry meets that. You might be able to find a few that do, but they are not large.

  Professor Bateman: I am willing to accept there is a small carbon benefit in that particular scheme you are talking about. It has a number of attractions. It is relatively local and they use the sugarcane at two different stages in the refining process. I think the one area of sustainability of that particular initiative which has not been looked at carefully enough is soils, which was my original research speciality. It is not at all clear to me that those sugarcane plantations are going to be sustainable longer term. I think there is a displacement issue, even if it has not shown itself particularly clearly yet.

  Q142  Colin Challen: The market pressures we have heard about this morning, do you think there is any realistic prospects of internationally achieving some kind of effective environmental-based land-use strategy?

  Professor Clift: History does not encourage me. I am thinking of the FSC as a good example. If you look at the discussion document on certification of biofuels, it makes quite clear that the FSC is the best developed certification scheme in this area, yet we all know it is not very effective.

  Dr Spracklen: It is virtually impossible to ensure that biofuel use is not going to displace agriculture into natural ecosystems. As soon as that happens, any carbon benefit from growing a biofuel is lost immediately. If this is the case, then I think the argument for biofuels instantly evaporates.

  Q143  Colin Challen: From that I guess I can take it probably that you all agree there should be a moratorium on the expansion and perhaps the existing use of biofuels. Would you extend it to the existing use or merely the expansion?

  Professor Clift: Where there are processing plants built I would probably let them run, as I indicated earlier on. You get best energy benefit from any crop when you reduce the amount of processing, so where we have land which is there producing energy crops I would look for a crop which really does not need to be converted into anything else. You lose more than half the energy content in the process of turning it into a liquid. In a lot of crop cases you lose way ahead of that. Just use the stuff without processing.

  Professor Bateman: I would advocate continuing existing schemes simply because we are gathering useful data. While they remain relatively small scale, of course they are advantageous. My greater concern is that where there are alternative biofuels which might have very strong benefits and very strong debits, there is insufficient research going on into those biofuels at the present time. For example, one thing that began to interest me more and more as I researched this particular topic was microbial biofuels. In theory, microbial growth is the more efficient kind we have available to us, particularly if photosynthesis is involved. There is relatively little research or interest in that particular area at the moment. If we are talking about second or even third generation biofuels, I am very much in favour of limited experimentation taking place. It is the phrase "biofuels industry" that I find difficult. I think it is too soon for that.

  Q144  Colin Challen: On that issue, which you heard me raise before about the marketing of these products, where we do have this limited use of these new fuels, should they be constrained only to the development of new technologies to go along with them? Do you see there is a problem tying them with the continued use of fossil fuels? Is that a concern you would share?

  Professor Clift: I am finding it quite difficult to answer that. Each individual biofuel has a number of technologies which can exploit it. There are certain technological developments which I think are essential for a rational bioenergy sector to develop, but they are not particularly sexy. What the world needs far more than technologies to turn solid biofuels into liquids would be a relatively small scale reliable combined heat and power process. Frankly, we do not have one of those at the moment and I will believe we have when I meet someone who has operated one and says, "Yes, it does work and it is reliable". That will be far more beneficial, albeit it is lower technology and therefore does not attract the sort of capital and engineering interest which it merits.

  Dr Spracklen: The other concern with liquid biofuels is that they do not target other greenhouse gases, such as ozone or black carbon, which would be targeting increasing efficiency in cars or moving to electric vehicles, for instance. There is increasing evidence that targeting black carbon, that is soot emissions from cars, would be the fastest way to reduce global warming in a very short-term, for example the next ten years or so, and biofuels do not do that.

  Q145  Chairman: On the question of technologies, what is the potential for second generation biofuels, if any?

  Professor Clift: I would say limited. There are certain niches, Jatropha in Malawi is an example. The thing I find problematic about second generation biofuels is the assumption that there are large quantities of waste agricultural material lying around waiting to be processed. My argument is if you have got surplus straw, use it as a source of heat or maybe combined heat and power that is efficient use. If there is surplus straw anywhere, it is going to be somewhere with a large production of grain crops and a small population density and that defines Saskatchewan. If you look at what has happened in Saskatchewan, it used to have a low input wheat cultivation system because 80% or so of the straw was ploughed back in to restore the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. What has happened over the last few years is that agricultural inputs into wheat production in Saskatchewan have shot up. These inputs include potash, and it came to my attention because the share value of Saskatchewan Potash has gone up hugely over the last two years, and on investigation that is why. The nitrate inputs are going to increase nitrous oxide emissions, which was the qualitative point Crutzen was making. If anyone has done the sums over whether taking straw out of Saskatchewan to turn it into liquid biofuels has been beneficial in greenhouse gas terms, if those sums have been done, I have not seen them. It is not clear to me that it would be beneficial.

  Q146  Chairman: Do I take it from that you are not particularly optimistic about finding a second generation of biofuel which would be very economically viable?

  Professor Clift: Correct.

  Chairman: You have been absolutely model witnesses. Thank you very much for coming in.

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