5 April 2008

RTFO - a stillborn policy

By Andrew Boswell

Despite its insipid name, the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is dangerous new legislation being introduced on April 15th that forces biofuels to be blended into the UK fuel supply. It is the policy child of wider EU plans to mandate massive amounts of biofuels into petrol and diesel across Europe. For four years, I and others have warned that these EU targets will wreak havoc on the climate and food supplies, and eco-systems and people in the global South.

Although, the RTFO has had a long gestation, only now are these concerns being echoed by senior scientists and policy makers creating a quandary for the Government. So who would relish the jobs of Ruth Kelly, Transport Minister, and deputy, Jim Fitzpatrick, in implementing this legislation as the voices calling for a suspension of the 'law of compulsory blending' become stronger, louder and more persistent?

January 14th - a Royal Society report warned that biofuels could do more damage than fossil fuels by accelerating rainforest destruction.

January 15th - policy 'grandfather', EU Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, tells the BBC that 'environment problems caused by biofuels are bigger than we thought', and suggests that targets might have to be put on hold.

January 20th - a group of MPs, the Environmental Audit Committee publishes a report Are Biofuels Sustainable?, that calls for moratoriums of UK and EU targets.

February 8th - peer reviewed scientific studies show that converting land for biofuel plantations creates a biofuel 'carbon debt'. It would take 840 years of biofuel production to repay the carbon debt in destroying peatland rainforest. Even for agricultural land reclaimed from US conservation land (similar to set-aside in UK), the figure is decades.

Asked by a journalist how policymakers might react, I replied that I could only imagine that London and Brussels were in panic. Within 10 days, Ruth Kelly announced the 'Gallagher review' on the indirect impacts of biofuel policy - a desperate response to this research.

February 26th - the UN's World Food Programme warned that due to rising food prices, it is short of $0.5billion just to meet existing food aid deliveries. Its advisers estimate that the rush to biofuels is 30% of the cause of these rising food prices.

Biofuels are making our food more expensive Graph: biofuels are making our food more expensive.

Meanwhile, Europe plans for a 12-fold EU increase of wheat based ethanol refineries. Last year's UK wheat surplus was around 0.75 million tonnes, and ministers here plan an expansion in ethanol refineries specifically using wheat that will take the UK into a 3 million tonnes deficit by 2010.

March 8th - the Government Chief Scientist, John Beddington, warns that the rush towards biofuels is theatening world food production and the lives of billions of people.

March 24th - Prof Bob Watson, DEFRA Chief Scientist, says "it would obviously be insane if we had a policy to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of biofuels that's actually leading to an increase in the greenhouse gases from biofuels." - a none too oblique reference to the RTFO.

Yet DEFRA will disregard its Chief Scientist, and the Government carry on regardless, as when I asked DEFRA minister, Joan Ruddock, on the March 28th EDP On the Spot online debate - her bland response "the advice of our Chief Scientist, Bob Watson, will of course continue to inform our future thinking on this subject."

On April 1st, RTFO minister, Jim Fitzpatrick gave the thin excuse to Parliament that the Government could not suspend the introduction of the RTFO without tiresome debates in both Houses of Parliament. Well, yes, but isn't that what Parliament is for when it is clear that legislation is dangerously misconceived?

And how independent can the 'thinking' of Gallagher review be, when it will be carried out by the Renewable Fuels Agency that was set up by the Department of Transport to roll out biofuels? It's rather like asking Dr Frankenstein to appraise his creation. In any case, its initial report is late June, two and half months after the RTFO starts on April Biofools Day.

The RTFO is a stillborn policy for it is unviable as a mechanism to reduce UK carbon emissions and there is now little public confidence in it. Further, the RTFO is an irrelevance anyway as the EU plans to do away with any member country biofuel legislation after 2010 - they are seeking to impose European wide legislation for much greater biofuel levels from then on. So the policy may be stillborn, but the monster still exists.

April Biofools Day will be marked by protests on the 15th including a demonstration outside Downing Street at 6pm, but the real work is in stopping the monster - see http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/ for details.