Britain's promise to more than double its use of biofuels by 2020 is "significantly" adding to worldwide carbon emissions, the Government admitted yesterday. Britain is signed up to a European guarantee to source 10 per cent of its transport fuel from renewable sources, such as biofuels, within the next 10 years.
But ministers have said that the policy is proving counter-productive and the greenhouse emissions associated with biofuels are substantially greater than the savings. They are now urging the European Commission to rethink the plan. The admission coincides with a major study published this week which concludes that biofuels will create an extra 56 million tons of CO2 per year – the equivalent of 12 to 26 million cars on Europe's roads by 2020.
This is because Europe will need to cultivate an area somewhere between the size of Belgium and the Republic of Ireland with biofuels to meet the target, which can only be done through land conversion – and more controversially, deforestation. The work will be on such a scale that the carbon released from the vegetation, trees and soil will be far greater than those given off by fossil fuels they are designed to replace.
The study, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, found that far from being 35 to 50 per cent less polluting, as required by the European Directive, the extra biofuels will be twice as bad for the environment.
First generation biofuels, made from crops such as oilseed rape, sugar cane and palms , were once considered a solution to burning fossil fuels. Such crops, it was argued, would give off the same amount of carbon as they had absorbed when growing – making their use carbon neutral and a key component in reducing global emissions.
Last year Britain signed up to a European Union directive compelling the country to use biofuels to provide 10 per cent of total energy in transport by 2020, as part of a National Renewable Energy Action Plan. But since then, a growing body of scientific evidence has suggested that far from reducing emissions, biofuels may be increasing them.
There is not enough cultivatable land available to grow them in Europe, so forests in South America and Asia are being destroyed to meet European demand. Although under European rules biofuels cannot be bought from "new" agricultural lands such as these, biofuel businesses have got around this by buying up existing land. Forests are then cut down to make up for the loss of agriculture – a trick known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).
Almost all biofuels used in the UK come from sources outside the EU, and the UK is anticipated to be the largest single importer from outside the community in order to reach its targets. In its response to a European consultation on biofuels published yesterday on the Department of Transport's website, the Government said it was time to reassess the policy.
"We consider that the results of the analytical work are compelling in showing that the greenhouse gas emissions from [ILUC] are significant compared to the potential emissions savings from biofuel use. The precise scale is uncertain, [but] this uncertainty cannot be ignored and, as with other aspects of climate change, cannot be a justification for inaction," the statement said.
Environmental charities have long argued that the European Union needs to rethink the target. Last night they welcomed the Government's move.
Tim Rice, ActionAid's biofuels policy advisor, said: "It's welcome that the Government recognises that greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use change are significant. But now it must urge the European Commission to make sure that this compelling evidence is factored into new legislation."
Sir John Harman, chair of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and a former head of the Environment Agency, said the extent of the biofuels problem was now clear.
"What our report found was for European member states to meet their recently published plans on biofuels, they would have to cultivate an area somewhere between the size of Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. This is not viable and will result in a big Indirect Land Use Change outside the EU," he said.
Last night the Transport Minister Norman Baker said the Government was pushing the European Commission to take action to reduce the risk that producing biofuels will have knock-on effects including deforestation.
"Like other EU member states, the UK is required to source 10 per cent of its transport energy from renewable sources by 2020, however I agree that the environmental benefits of biofuels can only be realised if they are produced in a sustainable way."
Case study: Brazil
Since 2004, the amount of sugar cane grown in Brazil has increased by more than 50 per cent – a figure which is expected to double again by 2018.
The Brazilian government knows that, to open foreign markets to ethanol, it must demonstrate that production does not lead to deforestation. In 2009, it introduced zones for sugar cane expansion – excluding two of Brazil's most biodiverse areas: the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal.
But other agriculture in those zones has been pushed out as a result, into those same areas. When the farmers moved in, trees and other vegetation were burned or cleared to make way for pasture, reducing the capacity to store and sequester carbon.
As the land was cleared, the soil started oxidising, releasing massive amounts of stored carbon. While precise calculations are difficult, emissions from indirect land use change are significant.