2 October 2004

Don't worry, it may never happen

By Andrew Boswell

Tara Greaves' brilliant EDP article on the day of Tony Blair's Climate Change speech called for "action to achieve a more sustainable way of life". Indeed, to encourage Green innovation, isn't it time that a Nobel Prize was created for sustainability?

Ironically, another article that day praised the business opportunities as "Demand soars for flights to Dublin" from Norwich - there should also a dummy's prize for reckless business.

These extremes reflect the predicament of our fragile world. It's seriously endangered, yet we continue to use cheap flights and buzz everywhere in cars - our mantra "Don't worry, it may never happen".

We hope a wonderful, new technology will be discovered to keep us all driving and flying for another century.

Some American corporations have grasped biofuels as an extremely lucrative market, especially in the expanding, Asian countries, where the Indians and Chinese, 2.5-billion people, are set to dwarf economic growth within the United States itself. Just last month, the Pure Energy Corporation (PEC) and American Biofuels (ABF) announced exports of biodiesel to these countries.

Given the huge energy demand of the US - a major reason for the disasterous Iraq War - wouldn't you think the Americans would want to keep their biofuels to help make their own country more sustainable?

Greenwash, now a dictionary word, describes misleading disinformation used to project an environmentally responsible corporate image. Are biofuels being spun in greenwash by interests more interested in making money than sustainable transport?

Norfolk biofuels industry lobbyists, such as Georgina Roberts in this paper recently, bandy about figures of 70%, or even greater, for carbon emission savings. However, even if correct, these large, convincing sounding, figures are based on the pure, unblended fuel before many times dilution with conventional diesel at the pump.

The actual government figures, from research, for unblended biodiesel savings are 40% - 56%. If a market were to be developed on a quick-growth, highly intensive, agribusiness model, the UK whole-market savings could be 0.8 - 3.2% by 2010. It's worth noting, that taking an average of 2.0%, then the same result would be achieved by the typical 10,000 miles a year driver reducing their driving by 200 miles a year.

True sustainability requires introducing a technology with care, so as not to introduce more environmental problems along the way. With biofuels, this means protecting local sources of food production, ensuring land use is not expanded at the expense of biodiversity, restricting practices that lead to soil depletion, eliminating chemical fertilizer regimes to prevent emissions of the dangerous greenhouse gas (GHG) nitrous oxide, and passing legislation to prevent the use of any GM technology in the biofuels cycle.

The Large Scale Biofuels Concern Group is advocating that the public are presented with the real facts - ungreenwashed, and that the socially and environmentally sound applications of this technology are then promoted and funded. Sustainable development requires an accreditation system to ensure all suppliers meet high carbon saving targets, and producers can demonstrate sustainability of their supply-chains. It also means much greater emphasis on small-scale production units, eg on farm, which minimize GHGs from transport costs, and really benefit the local communities. EEDA should be funding more research into such smaller projects.

Localised, small scale, biofuels, are being developed elsewhere in the UK. For example, Pembrokeshire Bio Energy, a farmers' co-operative which supplies biomass for automated heating of buildings such as hotels, swimming pools and homes. Let's see similar, exemplar, small scale schemes in Norfolk, instead of the exploitation of our heritage by big business.

The 'Green Fuels' greenwash is distracting motorists from addressing the real issue that we need to be cutting world wide emissions by tens rather than units of percentages. We should demand that the Government urgently introduce a radical sustainability policy, including truly sustainable biofuels. A slower and more sustainable introduction of biofuels would inevitably yield less, short-term - perhaps less than 1% UK GHG savings by 2010.

But a wider sustainability policy would also reduce use of private cars, short haul air flights, make huge investments in public transport, develop electric and hydrogen transport, and introduce incentives for energy efficiency including domestic solar panels and small-scale wind systems.

Alas. no politician is yet prepared to say it - we need to cut private car mileage not by hundreds of miles, but by thousands of mile each year. One of those Sustainability Nobel prizes should go to the Transport ministers in the country, which first implements an integrated sustainability policy; otherwise, it may take an environmental 'September 11th' to compel Governments to take real action.