Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Biofuels can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. (Paragraph 23)

2.  A potentially significant benefit of a new sustainable biofuels market in the EU, from which developing countries could stand to benefit, could be that it would help to create economic conditions which would assist in securing international sustainability standards for agricultural products more widely. (Paragraph 25)

3.  As different biofuels are produced in a number of ways from different feedstocks with varying impacts, it is difficult to generalise the benefits or costs of biofuels. Nevertheless, today most biofuels are produced intensively from feedstocks in ways that could have serious environmental consequences. (Paragraph 32)

4.  The sustainability standards applied by the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation are unlikely to prevent environmental damage from biofuels. In the UK aggregate environmental impacts might make it difficult for us to meet a range of targets, including those relating to halting biodiversity loss or improving water quality. (Paragraph 33)

5.  Biofuels standards should be changed to ensure that support is given only to those that deliver environmental improvements over fossil fuels in terms of not only greenhouse gas emission reductions but also wider impacts such as fertilizer and pesticide pollution. (Paragraph 34)

6.  In the absence of such standards the Government and EU has moved too quickly to stimulate the use of biofuels. Until they are developed the Government should place a moratorium on policies aimed at increasing the use of biofuels. (Paragraph 34)

7.  One of the most effective methods of monitoring land use change is the deployment of earth observation technology. The Government should give as much support as possible to the appropriate technologies as well as to international co-operation on the shared use of earth observation data. (Paragraph 48)

8.  The stimulation of biofuels production by the Government and EU is reckless in the absence of effective mechanisms to prevent the destruction of carbon sinks internationally. The Government must ensure that carbon sinks are effectively protected before providing incentives for the use of biofuels. The Government should also explore the development of international mechanisms to enable the creation of new carbon sinks. (Paragraph 53)

Ecosystem service assessment

9.  We welcome the recently published action plan for embedding an ecosystems approach as it shows that Government is seeking to take better decisions in relation to the UK's natural environment and the protection of ecosystem services. But biofuels policy currently fails to follow such an approach. There are significant knowledge gaps relating to land management for sustainable bioenergy production and for carbon sequestration. In order to align biofuels policy to an ecosystems approach the Government must commission work to assess:

  • the potential in the UK for carbon-oriented land management;
  • how UK land managers might better be rewarded for maintaining, improving or creating carbon sinks and other ecosystem services; and
  • the potential for UK sustainable bioenergy production. (Paragraph 57)

Food security

10.  A large biofuel industry based on current technology is likely to increase agricultural commodity prices and, by displacing food production, could damage food security in developing countries. Only when technology improves and an appropriate regulatory framework is in place should biofuels be utilised. When these changes have occurred barriers to free trade in bioenergy could be removed to allow developing countries to take advantage of the market and so that UK taxpayers can take advantage of lower prices. Even then impacts on food security should be closely monitored. (Paragraph 63)

11.  Given long-term demographic and climate change trends that might add further to food security problems we question whether transport biofuels have a long-term role. (Paragraph 64)

Is current biofuels policy justified?

12.  Current UK and EU policy fails to ensure the most efficient use of bioenergy in terms of the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of the land on which it is grown. It does not deliver good value for the taxpayer. The Common Agricultural Policy should be adjusted to ensure that bioenergy feedstock production no longer receives agricultural subsidies where it fails to constitute the most effective use of sustainable bioenergy resources. (Paragraph 67)

13.  Transport biofuels have received disproportionate attention and funding in comparison to other policies which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions at lower environmental risk and lower cost. The focus on biofuels is an example of silo policy-making as the Department for Transport has failed to ensure that the policy fits rationally with cross-Government action on climate change. (Paragraph 78)

14.  Support for biofuels has been premature given the substantial environmental risks associated with current technologies. Second generation biofuels might have a role to play in reducing emissions from transport at some point in the future. In the meantime other transport measures are required. Indeed, these wider measures can deliver significant and cost-effective GHG savings without the environmental risk of first generation biofuels. They could lower UK transport emissions by 14% in 2020 from 1990 levels. (Paragraph 79)

15.  In order to stimulate the development of second generation biofuels and other low carbon fuels we recommend that the RTFO is reformed exclusively to stimulate the development and use of low carbon fuel technologies, rather than to simply encourage the use of conventional biofuels. As part of this:

  • certificates should be granted on a highly differentiated carbon-saving basis to encourage the development and use of those technologies that deliver the most greenhouse gas emission reductions from the start of the scheme; and
  • long-term market stability must be granted to give the confidence required to stimulate the development of effective technologies — referential tax status should be guaranteed at an appropriate level out to 2020. (Paragraph 80)

16.  These changes, alongside robust sustainability standards, should ensure that support is no longer provided for the production of damaging first generation biofuels. Even with these changes it is not clear to us that current level of expenditure on alternative fuels is justified in light of our assessment that the money could more effectively reduce emissions elsewhere. Therefore we call on the Committee on Climate Change to report at the earliest opportunity on how more appropriately to stimulate the development and use of low-carbon fuels, taking into account the risks presented in this report. (Paragraph 83)

PSA 28

17.  The responsibility given to the Department for Transport to consider transport's wider environmental impacts as part of Public Service Agreement 28 is very welcome but current biofuels policy is at odds with the Public Service Agreement and will jeopardise the Government's stated aim to 'secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future'. We call on the Department for Transport to reassess the policy in light of the new PSA. (Paragraph 85)

Rural support

18.  Increased agricultural commodity prices and biofuel support mechanisms will benefit the rural economy. However current agricultural support for biofuels is inappropriate as these mechanisms do not guarantee that bioenergy is produced sustainably. By failing to move away from supporting conventional high input crops the EU is missing a significant opportunity to make overall land management more sustainable while ensuring that bioenergy potential is maximised. (Paragraph 88)

19.  Reforms of agricultural subsidies and support mechanisms to focus only on technologies that are the most effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable fashion will benefit the rural economy and be better value-for-money for the taxpayer. Arbitrary trade barriers to international bioenergy markets must ultimately be removed, although international regulatory improvements must be in place to ensure sustainable supplies. (Paragraph 89)

Fuel security

20.  In our view first generation biofuels will not improve fuel security in the EU. Second generation biofuels might have a role to play in the longer-term, but road transport fuel security is only likely to improve significantly when non-oil technologies become available. If transport fuel security is a major concern, measures other than biofuel use should be adopted. (Paragraph 92)

Policy coordination

21.   Biofuels policy is a clear example of failure to co-ordinate climate change policy. (Paragraph 93)

22.  A long-term climate change policy framework should be developed to eliminate misguided or harmful policies, such as current biofuels policy, and to ensure that emissions are reduced in an effective and efficient manner across the whole economy. (Paragraph 93)

23.  This report demonstrates there may be potentially damaging environmental impacts associated with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is vital that the Committee on Climate Change has and exercises a remit on sustainable development. (Paragraph 94)

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