Bad business of biofuels

Features editor

The hype over biofuels has pretty much died down. While they’re acknowledged as being an important part of the shift away from fossil fuels, they are not a solution in and of themselves. However, a report from the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) on the use of biofuels in the UK reveals a worrying trend.

The RFA — the independent body that regulates UK biofuels use — has been looking at the blending of biofuels into petrol and diesel by forecourt retailers. Blending has been mandated since 2008, and according to the legislation, the proportion of plant-derived fuel in forecourt fuels is supposed to increase over time, climbing from 2.5 per cent to 5 per cent by 2014. However, according to the report, although the biofuel is from renewable sources — crops are, by definition, renewable — most of them do not conform to environmental standards.

It’s an important distinction, because one of the biggest problems with the current generation of biofuels is that they are derived from crops which are grown on arable land, and this land use competes with growing crops for food. This is not a sustainable strategy, the RFA says; it claims that, although sustainable biofuels are available in sufficient quantities to meet the blending target, retailers are choosing not to buy them. Instead, they are opting for imported products, which do not meet environmental standards.

Perhaps this is a problem of legislation running ahead of technology. Second-generation biofuels, which are produced from non-food crops, like fast-growing trees that tolerate poor soils, and from agricultural waste such as straw and rice husks, promise to remove the land competition, but the technologies to produce them are not yet ready for industrial implementation.

The targets for environmental biofuels are voluntary and, naturally, in the cutthroat marketplace of the petrol station forecourt, the retailers are anxious to keep prices down. Imported biofuels are currently cheaper than sustainably-sourced versions, so it’s hardly surprising that ‘voluntary’ has been interpreted as ‘let’s ignore this’. But the problems caused by land use competition are severe, for food prices and for biodiversity. Perhaps the mandated use of biofuels should have waited until second-generation technology was more widely available, so the shift away from fossil fuels could have avoided putting pressure on arable land.

Did the biofuels hype overtake the reality and lead to bad legislation, written in haste by politicians who didn’t understand the issues? This could, in fact, be a very good example of the need for better advice to government. A Chief Engineering Advisor could have better pointed out the pitfalls of the policy and urged more caution.