From 15 April the RTFO requires 2.5% of all road fuels sold to come from biofuels, rising to 5% by 2010 but most of the biofuels will have to be imported. But many scientists say that the greenhouse gas benefits of many biofuels are debatable or non-existent and that some, such as those derived from palm oil, come from plantations established after clearance of rainforest, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs.
The government has asked the Renewable Fuels Agency to conduct a review of the environmental and economic impacts of biofuels, but its findings will not affect policy until 2011, when mandatory sustainability standards are brought in. A group of seven NGOs, including Greenpeace and Oxfam, have called for the RTFO’s introduction to be postponed until biofuels’ benefits have been clarified.
The RSPB issued a report on Tuesday calling for all biofuels to be required to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% compared to conventional fuels, and for ministers to direct investment away from current biofuels to fund the development of “second generation” biofuels, such as those using crop wastes or biomass.
Chief executive Graham Wynne said some biofuel production “will cause habitat loss, displace food production and emit more greenhouse gases than are being saved…Proof that biofuels were truly green should have been in place long before the RTFO came into force.”
Shadow Environment Secretary Peter Ainsworth said the government's policy on biofuels was in "disarray" and "endangers food security, threatens poverty, damages natural habitats and could increase climate change emissions…It is utter madness that without proper sustainability criteria the RTFO threatens to destroy vast swaths of rainforest in the name of the environment."
Announcing the RTFO’s introduction, the Department for Transport said motorists would be able to fill their tanks with “greener fuels” that “should help save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the coming years”. Similarly, Environment minister Phil Woolas said the RTFO “has the potential to deliver considerable carbon savings”.
But neither minister mentioned other impacts of biofuels, such as habitat destruction. In addition, their comments concerning greenhouse gas emissions were limited to CO2 - ignoring the fact that biofuel production generates emissions of other greenhouse gases, notably nitrous oxide.
Eager to demonstrate how seriously – if belatedly – it is taking the issue of biofuels’ impacts, the DfT highlighted four research reports on biofuels that appeared on the Environment Department (DEFRA)’s website the same day. The reports cover the cost-effectiveness of biofuels, their impact on commodity crop prices, the value for money of government support, and a review of work on the environmental sustainability of international biofuels production and use.