Biofuel firms are failing to act on land use change

Few biofuel suppliers are acting to improve crop sustainability, a report on the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation’s first year reveals.

Shell is the only fuel supplier working to increase growth of biofuel crops on idle land, according to a report by the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA).

In January, the RFA issued a report on the first year of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. Under this, fuel suppliers have to include a growing proportion of biodiesel or bioethanol in their fuel, reaching 5% in 2013/14.

The report confirms provisional figures issued last year (ENDS Report 414, pp 12-13). Some 1.2 billion litres of biofuel were supplied in 2008/09, it says, saving 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. On average, the biofuels’ emissions were 46% lower than those of the fuels they replaced.

But this took no account of the potential emissions from indirect land use change. These occur when biofuel crops displace existing agricultural production, leading to ploughing grasslands or deforestation.

Fuel suppliers have to report annually on the actions they are taking to improve the sustainability of biofuel crops, such as preventing indirect land use change by increasing the use of "idle land" - land not used for agricultural production or of high biodiversity value.

However, the RFA says information supplied in 2008/09 was generally poor. Several suppliers "did not demonstrate a commitment to act on sustainability issues", it says. Moreover, "no company except Shell reported any activity to promote feedstock production on idle land."

Shell’s report says it has formed a consortium, led by consultants Ecofys and including WWF and Indonesian palm oil growers, to draw up criteria to define and map idle land, and work out how it can be economically brought into production.2

Initial work will focus on the West Kalimantan region of Indonesia. It will then be extended to Brazil.

Most other suppliers’ reports do not mention idle land at all. Total UK says it is "not involved in" promoting production on idle land and such activity would be the responsibility of its parent firm. Murco says it has "little, if any" influence on growing practices, as it buys its biofuels from traders.

The RFA’s report includes a case study on the environmental effects of Malaysian palm oil production. Expansion of plantations there has been heavily linked to deforestation and draining peat land. If such land use change is occurring, it would take 130 years of biofuels use to claw back the carbon released, it says.

During 2008/09, UK firms supplied 127 million litres of palm oil biodiesel. This required 0.7% of Malaysia’s palm oil by crop area, and 0.3% of Indonesia’s.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil recently backed away from setting criteria to limit plantations’ carbon emissions (ENDS Report 418, pp 22-23).

Under the EU renewable energy directive, biofuels must achieve a minimum 35% carbon saving. The European Commission assumes palm oil’s saving is just 19%, but this rises above the target if the crops are grown on degraded land, or the plantation captures methane from the oil mill.

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