Harmful biofuels given fresh lease of life by new Government target

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.

Harmful biofuels given fresh lease of life by new Government target

  • Comments 1
  • Likes

A changing climate is one of the greatest threats to our wildlife, and we’re already seeing effects in Europe. A couple of weeks ago scientists confirmed that it is possible to achieve the ambitious aim, set in the Paris Agreement, of holding temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. But we’ll need faster and deeper emissions cuts than countries have so far promised, as the UN warned yesterday.

The UK is far from alone in needing to do far more in the near future. Only recently, the Prime Minister used a speech in Canada to make a welcome re-commitment to phasing out unabated coal power by 2025 (this pledge has been under consultation in recent months). As long as this coal isn’t all replaced by dirty biomass then it is to be warmly welcomed.

But make no mistake, getting rid of our dirtiest source of electricity is low-hanging fruit compared to what the UK will need to do in the coming decade. Coal plant are becoming uneconomical thanks to the UK’s price on carbon. And renewable energy is getting cheaper faster than anyone expected. Earlier this autumn we learned that the cost of offshore wind has halved compared to two years ago (see a blog by my colleague Melanie Coath here). This is great news, but as we’ve set out in our Energy Vision reports care is needed to make sure these developments are put in places where they won’t harm wildlife.

The surface transport sector, on the other hand, is a much harder nut to crack, not least because we’ve already wasted a number of years chasing after false solutions. The EU’s and UK’s renewable transport targets have driven the use of environmentally damaging biofuels. While the UK may be leaving the EU, it recently it announced plans to continue support for biofuels to at least 2032, plans that it reaffirmed in the new Clean Growth Strategy.

The most damaging types of biofuels are those made from crops (food crops like oil palm, wheat, maize, or energy crops like miscanthus). This is because they put pressure on land (directly where they’re grown or indirectly by displacing other crops). This pressure can mean the loss of important habitat for wildlife and the release of emissions (such as through forests being turned into cropland). In fact some biofuels are more polluting than petrol or diesel.

The RSPB has a long history of working on biofuels, and experience in fighting off environmentally damaging proposals, such as working with Nature Kenya to fight a biofuel plantation that could have destroyed important woodland habitat.

At present 3% of UK vehicle fuel is comprised of biofuels. The plan is for this to reach up to 9.75% by 2020 and rise to over 12% by 2032. There will be an upper limit on the contribution of biofuels made from crops. They will be allowed to make up at most 4% of UK fuels in 2020 and 2% by 2032.

We’ve never believed that a target for fuel volume is the best mechanism for cutting emissions from transport. Instead, a target for emissions reductions from the sector would be more effective. The volume target has simply driven significant use of unsustainable biofuels, particularly in other EU countries.

The UK currently uses large quantities of biofuels made from wastes, such as used cooking oil, which is good as they can provide emissions reductions and be sustainable. But the 4% cap on crop-based biofuels (which currently make up around 1% of all UK fuels) could still allow a quadrupling of their contribution. These may seem like small numbers but the volume of fuel used in the UK is large enough that this could have significant environmental impacts. Instead crop-based biofuels need to be phased out completely by 2030 at the latest.

Reducing emissions from the surface transport sector is possible through an aggressive programme of policies focussed on reducing demand and encouraging people to walk and cycle more and to choose electric vehicles. A number of car companies have announced plans in recent weeks to phase out the sale of fossil fuel vehicles. They have overtaken the UK Government, which has set itself a target date of 2040. In order to drive change that may not happen otherwise a target date of 2030 would be far more effective and ambitious.

By setting out this new biofuel ambition in the Clean Growth Strategy and separate publications, the Government seems committed to it. But perhaps greater support for electric vehicles could reduce or even remove the need for potentially harmful biofuels.

  • A very good blog with which I entirely agree. I just cannot believe that crop based biofuels actually reduce carbon emissions.There is the fuel to prepare the ground for planting, there is the fuel needed for harvesting the crop, the fuel needed for processing the crop and refining the product into acceptable fuel, and lastly the fuel need for transportation to blending and distribution sites. I do not believe that when all this is added together that the planet is actuallysaving on carbon emissions.

    Once again this Government has got its facts and figures wrong. Biofuels from crops should be scraped immediately, it makes no sense and is destroying the natural world.