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Biofuel backlash

Date: 17 October 2007

Guy Bird is our editor-at-large and political columnist

So, biofuel didn't get any further tax breaks in the Pre-Budget Report. Perhaps that's because, as a new study suggests, it isn't the panacea some, including me, hoped for, writes Guy Bird

Opposition to the widespread take-up of biofuel in Europe is growing and now includes high-profile eco warriors as well as petrolheads.

Its renewability - a key plus point in a world running out of oil - is not in doubt, but the side effects of producing it in large enough quantities to satisfy European-wide demand are.

The latest report from the respected Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says a big jump in biofuel production led by Government tax breaks could cause food shortages (as farmers with biofuel subsidies move

to make fuel rather than food), be highly detrimental to natural habitats (partly through a lack of crop diversity) and make little impact on climate change (as there still won't be enough of the stuff).

In basic terms it seems, according to some experts, that Europe doesn't have enough space to fuel and feed its people. And of course importing millions of gallons of biofuel from far-off places makes no sense either, especially when greater CO2 savings can be made refining existing technologies.

I've heard such fears before, but tended to think they were generated by the same sort of naysayers who dubiously reported the Hummer to be more eco-friendly than the Prius, on a well-to-wheel basis. However, the OECD is a respected organisation counting 30 global countries as members. Its report states: "Even the most optimistic studies posit no more than 13% of liquid fuel needs in 2050 being supplied by biofuels, [so] it must be asked whether the diversion of such large amounts of public funds in support of this single technological option can be justified."

“The EU should put the brakes on agrofuels by dropping its recently-adopted target. Agrofuels are a false substitute for actually improving vehicle efficiency.”

Friends of the Earth

Even the Friends of the Earth have come out against the fuel saying: "The EU should put the brakes on agrofuels by dropping its recently-adopted target. Agrofuels are a false substitute for actually improving vehicle efficiency."

That EU target is to obtain 10% of its transport fuel from plants by 2020.

The UK Government is still technically a promoter of biofuel too, dedicating a few paragraphs to the subject in Chancellor Alistair Darling's first Pre-Budget Report but only pledging to continue its tokenistic current duty rebate.

The interim report of the Government-backed King Review of Low Carbon Cars, also publicised at the time of the Pre-Budget Report, cautions: "Biofuels offer potential for CO2 savings but care must be taken not to expand demand too quickly before crop breakthroughs and robust environmental safeguards are in place."

Unless scientists and businessmen can work out a way to produce second-generation biofuels (from the likes of plant waste) more sustainably, that might never happen and biofuel could end up an even bigger lame duck in the UK than LPG.

The Government hasn't yet readjusted its aim to slowly increase the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which obliges fuel firms to raise the percentage of renewable fuel content used in the UK, but it will have to think about it soon unless it can help promote the development of a suitable second-generation biofuel or find some other magical renewable energy source to fill the gap. Nuclear anyone?