DEFRA chief scientist calls for caution on biofuels

A government chief scientist said on Monday that its biofuels policy – due to come into force in a fortnight – should be delayed

Environment Department (DEFRA) chief scientist Professor Robert Watson believes that the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation should be held back until the environmental impacts of biofuels can be ascertained.

Under the RTFO, fuel suppliers have to include a growing proportion of biodiesel or bioethanol in their fuel from 15 April, to reach 5% by 2010.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Watson said that the UK is probably a world leader in asking fuel suppliers for information about the environmental and social impacts of the biofuels they use. But asked “Is this an issue where indeed policy got ahead of evidence?”

“It’s now clear that while some sources of biofuels do appear to be potentially sustainable… others certainly are not,” he said. “It would obviously be totally insane if indeed we have a policy to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions…that’s actually leading to an increase.”

The government did not ask for his views on the RTFO, he added, but if it had he would have recommended delaying the policy’s introduction until the outcome of a Department for Transport study into land-use change caused by biofuels. The study was announced in February and is to be completed by the summer.

Also on Monday, a coalition of environmental and development NGOs including Greenpeace and Oxfam sent a letter to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly calling for the RTFO to be delayed until potential effects such as food price inflation, land use conflicts and carbon emissions can be evaluated.