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On 21 January 2008 the UK Government's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its report …

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- Are biofuels sustainable? The EU perspective

Are biofuels sustainable? The EU perspective

Sam Cockerill1 and Chris Martin2

1Sam Cockerill Ltd, Link Hall, Wheldrake Lane, Crockey Hill, York YO19 4SQ, UK

2Xenva Ltd, George Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight PO33 2JF, UK

Biotechnology for Biofuels 2008, 1:9. (Open Access)



On 21 January 2008 the UK Government's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its report on the inquiry 'Are biofuels sustainable?' [1]. Their short answer, which has since been echoed by a wave of media coverage and environmental group campaigning, was a resounding 'No'. The report concludes that the stimulation of biofuels production by the UK Government and by the EU is reckless. It urges the UK Government to withdraw support for biofuels, and to persuade the EU to do likewise by putting a moratorium on the current 5.75% target for biofuels until more sustainable production processes are developed.

This review argues against this conclusion. Globally, the development of an efficient biofuels industry is an environmental and economic imperative and the UK should leverage its capabilities in life sciences, energy and process industries to help meet this challenge. The EU is right to promote 'sustainable' biofuels through the Renewable Energy Directive, provided that sustainability criteria are implemented effectively and applied consistently.

The remit of the EAC, established in 1997 by the newly elected Labour Government, is to advise the UK Government on the likely impact of current policy on environmental protection and sustainable development. Sixteen members of parliament drawn from across party lines form the current committee, the majority of whom are philosophers, historians and agricultural college graduates, with one scientist (Dr Desmond Turner) thrown in for good measure. Since July 2007, the committee has considered an impressive set of oral and written evidence from research organisations, pressure groups, UK Government departments, industry bodies and corporations.

One week before the EAC's report came out, the Royal Society published its own report 'Sustainable Biofuels: Prospects and Challenges' [2]. The Royal Society arrived at a different conclusion, that biofuels have the potential to be an important part of the future transport energy mix, and can contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and energy security subject to two caveats:

1. not all biofuels offer GHG reductions and energy security benefits, and different biofuels must be assessed on their respective merits;

2. this assessment must include agronomic, environmental, economic and social evaluation of the complete cycle including up-front land use changes, and address global and regional impacts, not just local ones.

Like the EAC, The Royal Society's science policy team produce independent advice aimed at influencing UK Government policy. In contrast to the EAC, the Royal Society's working group for this report consisted entirely of scientists from active research organisations, and with relevant expertise. After a 15-month gestation period during which evidence broadly overlapping that submitted to the EAC was considered, the Royal Society's report and its findings were reviewed by a separate panel of leading scientists, and then published.

Who is right?


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