Every British motorist will soon be driving on petrol made from sugar beet and diesel made from oilseed rape as part of the Government's fight against climate change.
Biofuels, which are made from crops and do not add to the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO 2) causing global warming, are to become an everyday feature of UK road transport, in the biggest fuel shift since unleaded petrol was introduced more than 15 years ago.
The Government is drawing up a biofuel obligation, which will require oil companies such as Shell and BP to blend a fixed proportion of biofuels - initially 5 per cent - with all the petrol and diesel that they sell on garage forecourts.
The measure will be similar to the present renewables obligation on the electricity supply companies, which requires them to provide an increasing amount of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind power.
Under the new proposal, all UK petrol will be blended with ethanol, a fuel made from sugar beet or wheat, and diesel will be blended with biodiesel made from oilseed rape or recycled vegetable oil.
Unlike the fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal, which when burned add to the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, biofuels are "carbon neutral " - because the CO 2 they produce when burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the crops used to make them.
The new mixes will make little practical difference to the motorist - they will go straight into standard engines and will not push up pump prices because of lower Treasury duty on biofuels - but they will make an enormous difference to Britain's carbon emissions.
Replacing 5 per cent of Britain's standard road transport fuel consumption with biofuels is calculated to save a million tonnes of emissions annually, out of Britain's current total of 155mtC (million tonnes of carbon).
The Government is desperate for the saving because it is struggling to meet its much-promised commitment to cut British CO 2 emissions back to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 - a figure of 129mtC. On present trends, the Government will fall embarrassingly short of this target, and its prospective failure is undermining Tony Blair's status as a world leader on climate change.
The Government is conducting an intensive inter-departmental review of the measures in its current climate change programme, to try to bring the CO 2 target back within reach. The results will be announced by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett, in the next few weeks. It is likely the biofuel obligation - strongly supported by Mr Blair himself - will be one of the main planks of the programme.
Elliot Morley, the minister for Climate Change and Mrs Beckett's deputy, who is in day-to-day charge of the review, says in an interview with The Independent today that he thinks the target can still be met. "I think we can get a downward trajectory that will get us to the 20 per cent. It can be done," he said.
Speaking of the biofuel obligation, Mr Morley said he hoped its announcement would kick-start a domestic biofuel industry in the UK.
At present, Britain produces a small amount of biodiesel, mainly from small plants, but no ethanol at all, and most of the biofuel required under the obligation will at first have to be imported from countries such as Brazil, which produces large amounts. But that is likely to change quickly.
"A lot of people in the UK are waiting for a signal that this is going to be a long-term business," Mr Morley said.
A case in point is British Sugar, which is seeking planning permission for a multimillion-pound ethanol plant to be built on to its giant sugar-beet processing plant at Wissington, near Downham Market in Norfolk, which will be capable of producing 55,000 tonnes or 70m litres of ethanol annually, and could be operating by 2007.
Although British biofuel production is low, consumption is growing, and biofuel 5 per cent blends are starting to become available, especially in the south of England. Biodiesel blends are available at more than 150 outlets and ethanol-petrol blends are available at some Tesco supermarket sites, although the oil "majors" such as Shell and BP do not retail biofuels as yet.
However, both companies said at the weekend that they would go along with any biofuel obligation.
The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth strongly approves of the biofuel obligation. "We welcome it warmly because we have to move away from fossil fuels to counter climate change, which is the number one problem facing the world," said Roger Higman, the group's senior energy campaigner.
However, Mr Higman warned that the Government needed to be sure that the means of production were not themselves environmentally damaging.
"We would need a strong accreditation scheme to be sure that the crops used to make the fuel had been grown in a sustainable way," he said. "For example, you might have rainforest cleared for palm oil plantations to make biodiesel."
Britain has lagged behind many other countries in biofuel development. Brazil has led the world, producing vast amounts of ethanol from sugar cane and building a specialised motor industry to run on it. American output of ethanol from maize is now rising at 30 per cent a year. Germany is raising output of biodiesel by nearly 50 per cent a year and China has built the world's biggest ethanol plant.
What are biofuels?
By Matthew Beard
Biofuel is any fuel that derives from biomass - recently living organisms or their metabolic by-products, such as manure from cows.
Unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal and nuclear fuels, biofuels are a renewable energy source. They have the advantage of being "carbon neutral": although burning them releases carbon into the atmosphere, they have already absorbed that carbon as plants. For this reason they are championed by environmentalists as a way to reduce CO2 released into the atmosphere by using them to replace non-renewable energy sources.
Bioenergy covers 15 per cent of the world's energy consumption, mostly in developing countries where it is used for direct heating rather than electricity production.
There are three categories of biofuels - solid, liquid and gas. Of the liquids used as vehicle fuel, the two most common are biodiesel, made from oil seeds and, as a replacement for petrol, ethanol made from corn, sugar or grain.Reuse content