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Making biofuels sustainable

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The Royal Society today released a report on the future of biofuels, which have recently been the subject of intense debate, as Kurt Kleiner reported in Nature Reports Climate Change last month. New UK rules to begin this April require transport fuel suppliers to include a small percentage of ‘renewable fuel’ in their fuel sales, working up to 5% by 2010. But according to the Royal Society report, this policy intiative (called the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation or RTFO) is not guaranteed to meet its climate-preserving goals. When it comes to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the report points out, there are biofuels and biofuels. That is, while some plant fuel sources promise as much as 80% greenhouse gas savings over fossil fuels, it’s also possible to keep trashing the planet by using unsustainable methods to produce and supply renewable fuels. Unless the UK sets emissions targets per se in its fuel policy, warns the report, the new UK rules and the EU Biofuels Directive that they reflect “will do more for economic development and energy security than combating climate change”.

That’s a short-shighted tradeoff at best. By definition, energy produced unsustainably is not secure in the long term. But to ensure that biofuels are sustainable, says the report, you have to monitor carbon absorption and emission – along with other environmental and socioeconomic impacts – along the entire supply chain, starting in the crop field and ending at the tailpipe.

In the runup to the Royal Society report, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told the BBC that the EU recognized the problem and intended to introduce just such a monitoring scheme. The RTFO does have a mechanism for certifying emissions reductions – but the World Trade Organization hasn’t allowed the UK to set mandatory standards based on these measurements, said Jeremy Woods, a bioenergy policy expert from Imperial College London and a member of the working group that produced the report, whom I talked to after the Royal Society’s press conference. Mandatory standards would lock out suppliers without the means to monitor and report on sustainable practices, especially in the developing world, Woods explained. In fact, some representatives of developing nations tend to view such sustainability criteria as “a new form of protectionism” designed to make it harder for them to compete in the international market – and sometimes rightly so, Woods said.

In short, the current EU and UK fuel policies may need to become stricter, lest they sell out climate change for a temporary boost to their economies and energy independence. But on the other hand, developing countries fear that they, too, are in danger of being sold out by more stringent regulations.

For more on the issue of biofuels and whether they can really be part of the climate change solution, tune in (or subscribe to the RSS feed) for the Climate Podcast at the end of this month, where we talk to authors of the Royal Society study…and much more.

Anna Barnett

Photo: Gasoline on the left, alcohol on the right at a Brazillian filling station (Nate Cull).


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