Demand for ‘green’ fuels which aim to cut emissions from transport is contributing to climate change, destroying habitats and pushing wildlife towards extinction, conservationists claimed today.
The concerns were raised as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) comes into force today, requiring all petrol and diesel sold on the forecourt to consist of 2.5% biofuels, rising to 5% by 2010.
The idea behind the obligation is to reduce the climate change emissions from transport – which produces more than a quarter of overall greenhouse gases in the UK – through the use of renewables in place of fossil fuels.
The RSPB said forest clearance, use of fertilisers which produce greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and the energy used to convert crops to fuel and then transport them could all make the overall emissions of biofuels higher than their oil or diesel equivalents.
But farming leaders said different biofuel production systems had hugely different impacts on the environment, greenhouse gas emissions and whether they compete for land with food.
Sustainable biofuels grown in Britain from feed wheat that would otherwise be exported, or oilseed rape on set-aside land, could be produced in large enough quantities to meet the RTFO, National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall said.
Threat to birds
The RSPB said biofuel crops grown elsewhere around the world have already led to one Brazilian bird, the Alagoas curassow, becoming extinct as a result of forest being cleared for sugar cane plantations.
Many other species in South America, Malaysia, Indonesia and Africa are threatened by the demand for soya, palm oil and sugar cane for biofuels, according to the report.
And clearance of forests and savannah in these areas could release large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions, the RSPB said.
The study, A Cool Approach to Biofuels, urges the government to switch from investment in the current set of biofuels to development of ‘second generation’ renewable transport fuels which can be made from waste crops and are much more energy efficient.
It also calls for a moratorium on the RTFO and no further targets in Europe – where a 10% goal for biofuel use by 2020 has been proposed – and policies to cut emissions from transport in sustainable ways.
Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, said: ‘Some biofuel production will cause habitat loss, displace food production and emit more greenhouse gases that are being saved.
‘Those promoting biofuels claim they will use existing farmland or land of poor quality, but the impacts of biofuel production on forests and wetlands are already being seen worldwide.’
Greenhouse gas savings
Clare Wenner, head of transport biofuels at the Renewable Energy Association, said research showed bioethanol could deliver greenhouse gas savings of 65% and biodiesel could produce cuts of 53% compared to conventional fossil fuels.
And despite claims the demand for biofuels is driving a switch from food crops to energy crops and pushing up food prices, she said the UN estimated just 2% of agricultural land will be used for producing the renewable fuels by 2030.
Mr Kendall said British-grown and processed biofuels could achieve savings of up to 64% in greenhouse gases.
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