As you may have already seen, along with WWF, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and enoughsenough.org, we've placed an advert in several of today's papers warning the government about the environmental risks of biofuels as an alternative to petrol and diesel. Hang on, I imagine some of you are saying right now, aren't they supposed to be clean and green with the power to save us from the tyranny of fossil fuels? Well, yes... and no.
Green fuels? Yes please!
The government wants to know what you think about biofuels. Tell them we need strict and compulsory controls to make sure they really are green fuels. Hurry - you need to do it before 17 May.
Send your email now
View the advert
Watch the video
Biofuels such as ethanol (a petrol replacement that Brazil is doing so much to champion) and biodiesel can indeed have advantages over more traditional fuel sources. Made from processed agricultural crops such as sugar cane and oil palm, burning biofuels only releases the carbon dioxide those plants absorbed during their lifecycle, not massive quantities of compressed, fossilised carbon that has been locked out of the carbon cycle for millions of years. So naturally, they could form part of the solution to climate change, at least if it doesn't take a huge amount of energy to actually make them which is sometimes the case.
The battle between cars and people
As a result, the government has grabbed onto biofuels like a drowning sailor and in the proposed Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) is insisting that all fuel companies increase the amount of biofuels they supply. Sounds like a great idea, until you look at how they're produced. As George Monbiot has been pointing out for several years (see here, here and, more recently, here), if their production isn't properly monitored and controlled, it could spell disaster for rainforests, our own food and water supplies and even climate change.
I know it's stating the bloody obvious but these crops need to be grown somewhere. There's a finite amount of arable land on the planet and most, if not all, of that is already being used to feed the 6 billion plus population. Monbiot points out that if we rely on crops for our fuel supplies, it will "set up a competition for food between cars and people" and that crop prices are already rising as a result. As food becomes more and more expensive, you can bet it won't be those sitting behind the wheel of a 4x4 going hungry.
With prices for biofuel crops rising ever higher as demand increases, the temptation to open up new areas of arable land is just too great. Illegal timber isn't the only reason the rainforests of south-east Asia are being torn down, and in Indonesia vast areas that were once virgin forest are being replanted with palms, the oil from which goes into a multitude of supermarket products and, increasingly, biofuels. With species such as orang-utans already highly endangered, the expansion of oil palm plantations into their remaining habitat could be the final straw.
Deforestation = climate change
The link between deforestation and accelerated climate change is well-established, not least in the Stern Review which said that 18 per cent of emissions are as a result of forest destruction. Another fact in our own press release that caught my eye is that biodiesel from soya grown on deforested land would take 200 years before it could be considered 'carbon neutral'.
But to even attempt to meet the world's current fuel demands, colossal tracts of land would need to be turned over to biofuel production so the irony is that instead of reducing emissions, this supposedly 'green' alternative could actually be increasing them by an order of magnitude.
So what's the answer? Do we now campaign for an immediate ban on all biofuels? No, because as I mentioned above they can offer part of the solution. However, the government's RTFO needs to ensure that biofuels do actually reduce climate change emissions and that forests and other valuable habitats aren't bulldozed to grow them. But even more importantly, we need to be using less fuel in the first place by making our vehicles more efficient and, wherever possible, getting out of our cars and onto buses, trains, bicycles or Shanks's pony.
So that's something we can all do right there: if you have a car, it should be the most efficient model available. You could also use it less, and start cycling or walking more. If you've done all of that, there's still something you can do: the government is asking for people's views about biofuels so we all have a chance to influence what goes into the RTFO.
Send a email to the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman, telling him that we need for rigorous controls on biofuels. Otherwise the green dream really will become a nightmare.