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On 21 January 2008 the UK Government's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its report …
Biology Articles » Biotechnology » White Biotechnology » Are biofuels sustainable? The EU perspective » A European opportunity
Of all of the problems flagged by the EAC, the impact of biofuel
growth on land use is by far the most significant for GHG emissions. In
2000, agriculture and land use change together represented 32% of
global GHG emissions, compared with just 14% for transport .
Land use GHG emissions are mostly down to deforestation for
agriculture, and half are generated by land use changes in just two
countries: Brazil and Indonesia .
In both cases agricultural expansion is being driven by the booming
demand for biofuel feedstocks: sugar cane in Brazil and palm oil in
Indonesia. Brazilian bioethanol is often regarded as the gold standard
in renewable fuels, because its production and distribution saves
around 10 times the fossil fuel inputs required, compared with less
than twice the saving for corn ethanol in the US. Yet if this biofuel
production causes deforestation, whether directly or indirectly through
the displacement of other agricultural land use, the one-off GHG
release during deforestation could take over 20 years to offset by
growing sugar cane feedstock for bioethanol on the same land. Payback
for land deforested for palm oil takes even longer, by some estimates
this could be 400 years or more [11,12].
Biofuel produced from deforested land is clearly not sustainable,
and therefore as both the EAC and Royal Society recognise, each biofuel
must be assessed on its own merits including the impact of land use
change. The question is, until differentiation based on this assessment
is possible, should we promote the development and use of all biofuels,
a select few or, as the EAC recommends, none at all?
Under current UK policy the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation
(RTFO) will be supported by a proposed carbon reporting and
sustainability certification scheme, and incentives will be based on
the carbon performance of the biofuel used, taking the feedstock
source, processing and distribution into account .
The EAC states in no uncertain terms that this is not good enough, and
that UK and EU targets for biofuel use should be suspended until
adequate sustainability standards are in place.
This hard-line conclusion draws heavily on views expressed in
environmental pressure group inputs to the inquiry. These include
witness evidence from the WWF, Friends of the Earth and the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds (which counts several of the
inquiry's committee amongst its members) and whose justifiable concern
at the global habitat loss caused by deforestation and other land use
changes found an outlet in this inquiry.
The effect of increased biofuel production from feedstocks grown
within Europe cannot be likened to the devastating impact of palm-oil
plantations that now roll across former Indonesian rainforests. Since
the EU's Biofuels Directive was adopted in May 2003, EU biofuel
production has more than doubled every two years .
Yet Europe's forests are not shrinking, but growing at about 0.4%
annually as they have done since 1990 and represent almost twice the
total area of Europe's arable farmland .
Biofuel feedstock production in Europe taps into two substantial
resources: Eight million hectares of set-aside land, and productivity
improvements through better plant varieties and agronomic practices.
Productivity gains, particularly in the new member states in Eastern
Europe, represent the larger of these resources. Several countries here
currently achieve less than half the wheat yield compared with those
from similar soils and climatic conditions in Western Europe, whereas
East Germany's 'yield gap' has been closed since reunification and
wheat yields, now similar to those achieved in West Germany, are
amongst the highest in Europe .
Other arguments against the sustainability of biofuels in Europe
raised by the EAC do not stand up to scrutiny. The economic case
against biofuels cited by the EAC gives an uneconomic CO2 abatement
cost for wheat bioethanol of £152/tonne and £137/tonne for biodiesel,
supported by data sourced from the 2007 DTI paper 'UK Biomass Strategy'
Yet on closer inspection, the DTI paper actually qualifies this data as
'illustrative'. Moreover, the DTI analysis dates back to 2005 and uses
a projected oil cost of $40/barrel. True GHG abatement costs of biofuel
incentives remain difficult to evaluate with any accuracy, as different
production methods used for the same feedstock have a large impact, but
agricultural GHG emissions can be reduced through known practices such
as low-till cultivation to minimise soil CO2 losses , selective application of fertiliser in response to plant demand to minimise N2O emissions , and by new approaches such as application of 'Biochar' nutrients that sequester carbon whilst improving soil fertility .
Given that most agriculture is for food production, the right way to
tackle this issue is through policy that controls all agricultural
supply, rather than just biofuel feedstocks. The EU's single farm
payment scheme already stipulates good environmental management
practices that include control of chemical and fertiliser use,
set-aside areas, field boundary sizes and highly specific measures such
as patches within fields set aside for ground nesting birds. This
scheme could also provide a mechanism for managing down the overall GHG
contribution of European agriculture.
Perhaps the most emotive argument against sustainable biofuel
production in Europe is 'food for fuel', that the diversion of
agricultural output into biofuel production will drive up prices and
deprive the world's poor of food. The EAC quote Jean Zeagler of the UN:
" [It is] a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the
production of crops which are then burned for fuel". This is an
argument that resonates with the public awareness of rising food prices
in supermarkets, particularly for foods with wheat- and corn-based
ingredients, but again, here, all is not what it seems. Global wheat
prices in real terms today remain well below their historic levels
until the mid 1980s, when agricultural policies subsidising production
in the EU and US conspired to create a global grain mountain .
This surplus depressed free market prices and led to massive flows of
low-priced agricultural exports to developing countries, destroying the
livelihoods of local farmers and stifling agricultural development.
This is a bone of contention that continued to dog EU agricultural
policy in 2006 according to Claire Godfrey, trade policy adviser for
Oxfam: "Not only does the Common Agricultural Policy hit European
shoppers in their pockets but strikes a blow against the heart of
development in places like Africa. The UK government must lobby hard
within the EU to agree an overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy by
2008 to put an end to the vicious cycle of overproduction and dumping."
In practice, the 'food for fuel' argument can be applied to any use
of agricultural resources whose output does not directly feed people.
Of these, the most significant are the production of animal feed and
the production of biofuel feedstocks. Global growth in demand for
animal feed is accelerating due to the combined impact of population
increase and increased per capita income, which drives up consumption
of meat. In Europe over 140 million tonnes, more than half of all grain
produced, is used for animal feed each year  and a further 45 million tonnes of oil meals are imported to make up the necessary supply of animal feed protein .
What the EAC failed to acknowledge in its consideration of the
impact of biofuels on food security is that a co-product of both
bioethanol and biodiesel production is high-protein animal feed. The UK
Government's Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs considered in
2007 whether biofuels would drive up the price of animal feed in the
EU, and concluded that impact would be neutral, with any increase in
grain prices offset by an increased supply of feed co-produced from
biofuel processes .
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