Biofuels: from darling to demon

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a decade makes. Just a few years ago biofuels were being hailed by politicians and environmentalists alike as the tool to relieve the world of its dependency on oil. Times have changed, and so have opinions on using food crops for fuel.


“Biofuel crops not only displace food crops but are in some cases providing energy sources that are potentially more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels,” said the Lib Dem MP Sir Malcolm Bruce, on publishing the latest instalment of the Commons international development committee’s “Global Food Security” report.


The group said agriculturally produced biofuels are having a “major detrimental impact on global food security by driving higher and more volatile food prices”. What’s more, plans to require 10% of Europe’s transport fuel to be drawn from renewable sources by 2020 are “likely to cause dramatic food price increases”.


The conflict between food and fuel has been around for years – in some cases ever since biofuels started to gather political support. Dennis Avery, the president of the Centre for Global Food Issues in the US, warned that farmers would have their heads turned by new markets for their crops. “I knew it would be bad. But I would never have believed it would get this bad this quickly,” he said recently.


Farmers in Europe have also had their heads turned, so much so that the European Commission is considering changes to its renewable fuel targets. Instead of using wheat and rapeseed – “first-generation biofuels” – the European commissioner forclimate action, Connie Hedegaard, wants to see incentives shifted to advanced biofuels such as algae, farm waste and straw. “We must invest in biofuels that achieve real emission cuts and do not compete with food,” she said in October.


Farming groups called the proposals “ill-conceived”, highlighting the high- quality fuel that comes from bioethanol plants. According to the Renewable Energy Association demand for biofuels can actually “help improve agricultural productivity”, while the links between food price volatility and biofuel production are unclear.


EU member states currently have to derive at least 10% of their transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020. Under Hedegaard’s new plans, no more than half of that 10% can be crop-based, with the rest coming from the advanced biofuels.Some analysts have suggested the idea is like “changing the rules halfway through a football match”.


However, the international development committee feels there is time to change the targets. Among its recommendations to the UK government is a revision of the domestic Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) to specifically exclude agriculturally produced biofuels.


“While we recognise that refining the RFTO will make it harder for the UK to meet current EU obligations, the relevant target does not kick in until 2020 so there is nothing to stop the UK from revising the RTFO now to exclude agriculturally produced biofuels,” said Sir Malcolm.


The committee also called on UK ministers to push for similar reform of the EU target and highlighted “several opportunities” to do so this month, including the EU Energy Council the G8 summit. It wasn’t that long ago that ministers were being advised to push biocrop targets up rather than down. How times have changed.