Traffic jam in London

Biofuels for transport

Did you know that every time you fill up your car, the petrol or diesel you are using includes around 3% biofuels? This will increase to meet a European target of 10% by 2020.

About biofuels

Originally promoted as a helpful response to climate change, some biofuels are turning out to be even more damaging than the fossil fuels they replace as well as putting wildlife and habitats at risk.

This is because the production of biofuels very often relies upon growing crops. This can result in direct and indirect land use change (LUC and ILUC). Both of these can cause the degradation or destruction of habitats. In addition, land use change can lead to the release of greenhouse gas emissions. 

 Insect on dewy ears of barley, Yorkshire

Are biofuels low carbon?

Scientific evidence has now made it clear biofuels are not necessarily low carbon. Particularly when crops are used to make the fuels, the emissions caused by land use change and the fertilisers which are needed all need to be taken into account.

In some case, when these emissions are properly counted, it becomes clear that biofuels can actually cause emissions increases, instead of savings.

For example, the emissions can be particularly high (compared to fossil fuels) if the biofuel is made from oil palm grown on carbon-rich peatlands. Fortunately, the UK is not a major user of palm oil, but some European countries are. The same negative effect on the climate occurs with other crop-based biofuels too. 

Recent proposals to change the laws regulating the production and use of biofuels in the UK could help to limit some of the damage to the climate, but do not go far enough. In particular, the possibility of limiting the contribution of crop-based biofuels to zero could help to protect wildlife and the climate.

We believe the target for biofuels from transport should only remain if support is restricted to the most sustainable biofuels that deliver genuine emissions predictions. At present this is not the case. Some environmental safeguards exist in legislation but these are insufficient to ensure biofuels deliver adequate greenhouse gas savings, or to ensure important areas for wildlife and people are protected.

Oil seed rape, RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire

The impact of biofuels on wildlife

Increasing production of crops for biofuels is changing agricultural farmland, with direct and indirect effects on wildlife habitats.

In some areas, extensively farmed lands with wildlife-friendly features are being converted to more intensive farming for biofuel crops. In other areas, valuable natural ecosystems such as forests, peatlands and grasslands are being cleared, drained and ploughed up to grow biofuels.

The RSPB has previously worked with local partners to prevent the destruction of wildlife-rich woodlands in Kenya, which were planned to be converted to biofuel plantations.

Some energy crops could provide new opportunities to birds for nesting and new sources of food, depending on the chosen types of bioenergy crops.

Policies should support further research in this area and restrict the growth of bioenergy crops to those which have proven to be beneficial for wildlife and in delivering greenhouse gas savings.

On the other hand, there is already evidence, that changes in agriculture in order to produce biofuels are having negative impacts on wildlife within the EU. Read more in BirdLife's 'Black Book of Bioenergy' case report.

Birds, mammals and amphibians are all at risk if biofuels production increases. This is mainly due to the loss of habitats and landscape-scale effects.

Even if the UK converted huge areas of farmland from food to biofuel production, there would not be enough land to meet renewable energy targets. This has already put significant pressure on farmers to bring set-aside land back into agricultural use.

Set-aside is known to be an important habitat for feeding and nesting for many farmland bird species that are otherwise in severe decline across Europe. 

In addition to this, the conversion of non-cropped land for bioenergy production is already resulting in loss of high wildlife value habitats such as fallow, wetlands, wet meadows, extensively managed semi-natural grassland and scrub. This will have negative impacts on some bird species and other farmland biodiversity.

What role can biofuels play?

A limited supply of sustainable biofuels could play an important role in reducing emissions from the transport sector. But the contribution of crop-based biofuels should be limited to zero.

The RSPB would welcome a focus from government policy on genuine wastes and residues, bearing in mind that other industries might already be interested in resources such as Birdlife's WASTED report. 

There are also a number of much less damaging ways of reducing emissions from the transport sector, for example through substantial improvements in vehicle efficiency and the development and uptake of electric vehicles.

The King Review concluded that the potential in this area was so great that carbon dioxide emissions per car could be reduced by 30 percent using technology that is already available or close to market, such as lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles and hybrid technology (King Review 2007 (1)).

In addition, boosting walking and cycling could save 7.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year while lowering UK speed limits could reduce emissions by as much as 5.4 million tonnes.

In today’s Britain, people can feel positively discouraged from making green transport choices. The government should invest in ways to make it safe, affordable and easy for people to walk, cycle and take low-carbon public transport.

Enforcing the speed limit on motorways or even dropping the speed limit and encouraging drivers to use more efficient driving methods would also significantly reduce transport emissions in the UK.