26 January 2008

Storm breaking on biofuels

By Andrew Boswell

On Monday, a committee of MPs, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), published a hard hitting report called Are Biofuels Sustainable?. Their answer for current biofuels was a resounding No!.

This may seem strange when biofuels have been promoted by government and industry in recent years as a way to help in the battle against climate change. Indeed, many people initially thought it sounded a good idea to substitute some petrol or diesel with a fuel processed from a crop as plants absorb carbon dioxide when they grow, and so biofuels should save carbon emissions. However, it soon became apparent it is not this simple, and that biofuel growing and processing can have many negative impacts. This column first predicted four years ago that these problems had not been properly analysed, and a storm was brewing as Europe rushed to biofuels.

This storm finally broke on Monday with the MPs' report calling for a delay, or moratorium, on the Governments biofuel targets because some biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, and carbon sinks and rainforests are being destroyed in order to grow crops. The report states that current UK and EU policy is misguided.

Concerns belatedly started to reach the top of the EU last week when Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, admitted that they "had not foreseen all the problems" that EU biofuels policy would cause. And just the previous week, Louis Michel, the EU Development Commissioner stated that he agreed that governments should impose an international moratorium on increasing biofuel targets because of the impact that growing crops for fuel has on food security in the poorest countries (see Biofuels may cause even more starvation).

Despite this split at the top, the Commission went ahead this Wednesday and published its draft EU Renewable Energy Directive that calls for at least 10% of biofuels at the pump by 2020 – a V-sign to the UK MPs and numerous other recent warnings on the environmental and social damage. This also shows a total disrespect to a wide coalition of civil society groups from South, representing those suffering most from the policy, who have consistently called, for over a year, for the target to be scrapped.

Democratic process was hard to spot here when UK biofuel targets, forcing all UK motorists to buy biofuels from April 15th, were set last October. Now biofuel issues are socially and scientifically complex, and involve complicated data about greenhouse gas balances, land displacement, food security, human rights. It is not possible even for those closest to the debate to keep up with everything. So you would think that MPs who have to decide on the targets for the policy would be well briefed and have plenty of warning. Think again!

17 MPs on a special House of Commons committee called a Delegations Committee made the decision after being chosen by an arcane procedure in the previous week that did not include informing the MPs themselves. I was surprised when I emailed the committee chair on the Saturday and he responded that it was the first he knew that he was chairing it. Subsequently, I spoke to several MPs prior to their debate on the following Tuesday. It was clear they felt inadequately prepared, one telling me that they only found out that they were on the Committee at 8pm on the Monday night. By law, councillors have to receive committee papers at least 5 working days ahead. It beggars belief that MPs were expected to make important decisions on such an intricate issue with, effectively, no notice.

The MPs felt rushed and Westminster cracks appeared when no opposition party MPs voted for the targets: it only passed as Labour MPs, some grudgingly, toed the Government line. This unease has turned to revolt with this week's report.

It is, of further concern, that the targets were passed after Junior Transport minister, Jim Fitzpatrick told the October Committee that he had "demonstrated that that is not the case" that biofuels development could lead to starvation and poverty. Yet he had been sent evidence that contradicted his amazing claim – evidence that emerged from many sources during 2007 including the WTO, OECD, and the UN. Later on 27th November when giving evidence to the EAC, he had apparently changed his mind as he told the EAC that "the Government is concerned about the issue of food security".

After this week's report, it is now time that Mr Fitzpatrick and his boss Ruth Kelly came clean. They must respond to the EAC report and abandon their targets to force motorists to consume rainforest destruction, starvation and climate chaos from April Biofools Day (April 15th).