NGOs begin the biofuels backlash

The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation could "be worse than useless", promoting deforestation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a statement by the UK’s main environmental NGOs. If the obligation is not amended, they will call for a halt in biofuel use.

Under the RTFO, fuel suppliers will have to blend a growing proportion of biodiesel or bioethanol into their fuel from 2008 to reach 5% by 2010.

When the obligation was announced, Friends of the Earth said it was "delighted" with the news. But warned that without safeguards it could "encourage biofuel producers to damage the countryside by intensifying production and destroy rainforests through imports of palm oil" (ENDS Report 370, p 35 ).

Since then FoE has reserved judgment, waiting to see what sustainability standards would be included in the obligation.

These emerged last December (ENDS Report 383, p 15 ). Fuel suppliers will have to report on the greenhouse gas savings and environmental and social impacts of biofuels, but will not have to meet minimum standards.

In March, FoE, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF issued a joint statement expressing their "deep concern" over the obligation. In its current form, the RTFO could "promote deforestation" and lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, they say.

The statement follows a letter, seen by ENDS, that the NGOs sent to Environment Secretary David Miliband and Transport Minister Stephen Ladyman in January.

Biofuels are "stealing the agenda away from other more effective and lower risk ways of dealing with emissions from transport," the letter says. These include mandatory emissions limits for cars and differentiated vehicle excise duty.

Biofuels also require large amounts of land which would be better used to produce biomass for heat and power production - yielding "higher and more reliable" greenhouse gas savings.

The RTFO’s original purpose of reducing greenhouse emissions has been marginalised, the NGOs say. Fuel suppliers can use any biofuels to meet the obligation even if their production actually increases emissions.

"The RTFO… could cause significant environmental damage at a global level," the letter adds. "Without strong, mandatory standards in place, the obligation will pull in biofuels that are being produced at the expense of globally important natural habitats."

The NGOs make four recommendations for amending the RTFO:

  • Ensure that obligation certificates are only issued to biofuels that meet minimum sustainability standards.
  • Do not award obligation certificates to biofuels that deliver greenhouse gas savings of less than 50% compared to fossil fuels.
  • Exclude biofuels produced on land that was previously a carbon sink such as rainforest or savannah grasslands.
  • As a precautionary approach, exclude biofuels made from GM crops.

The NGOs are willing to accept the RTFO’s current reporting requirements if they act as a bridge to minimum standards.

However, the DfT believes any such standards would be subject to challenge under world trade rules.

"At the moment we simply want to sort out the issue of certification," said Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist. "But if that doesn’t occur we will call for a halt to any further growth in the sector."

Ed Matthew, biofuels campaigner at FoE, agreed: "All companies should be able to provide evidence their biofuels come from sustainable sources and lead to savings in greenhouse gases. If they can’t do that, they should stop."

However, he warned that even if biofuel producers obtain soya and palm oil from sustainable sources, the increase in demand for such materials is likely to lead to further destruction of rainforests.

All the NGOs involved admit they are playing catch-up on biofuels. "I think our perspective was coloured by the perception that biofuels would be sourced from within the EU," Dr Parr said.

Biofuelwatch - a group of climate campaigners - is the only group to have previously taken a stance on the issue.

Formed in June last year, it has run an email campaign calling for Tesco to end its investment in Greenergy Fuels, which is using soya and palm oil, alongside rape seed oil, to produce biodiesel at its plant in Immingham.

Biofuelwatch says its future campaigns will focus on high profile companies investing in and using biofuels.