The government came under increasing pressure regarding biofuels this week after the UK’s chief environment scientist called for a delay in policy. Professor Robert Watson said ministers should wait for the results of an inquiry the government has commissioned into the sustainability of biofuels before implementing the Renewable Transport Fuel
Obligation (RTFO). The RTFO, which means fuel sold at UK forecourt pumps will contain at least 2.5% biofuel, is due to be introduced on April 15. The percentage of biofuel is expected to rise to 5% by 2010.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Watson warned that the biofuels policy in the EU and UK may have run ahead of science.
He said: “It would obviously be totally insane if we had a policy to try and reduce green house gas emissions through the use of biofuels that’s actually leading to an increase in the greenhouse gases from biofuels.”
Professor Watson has been the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) since September. According to Defra, he was previously Chief Scientist and Senior Advisor for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, and has worked at NASA and the White House. He believes the government should wait for the results of the study being undertaken by the UK’s newly formed Renewable Fuels Agency before taking action. The study, ordered by Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly in February, will look at the “wider economic and environmental impacts - particularly the indirect impacts - of different forms of biofuel production”. It is hoped the results of the study will help form the development of UK and EU policies in the area, including setting EU biofuel targets after 2010.
Professor Watson is the latest in a long line who have criticised the government’s stance on biofuels and the RTFO – which is being introduced to comply with EU policy. Some scientists and environmental groups believe biofuels may actually create more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels because of the negative effects that can be caused by their production and transport. There are also fears that valuable land needed to grow food is being used to produce biofuels, so putting up the price of food and destroying the natural habitat of animals and birds.
Professor Watson’s comments came weeks after the RSPB called on the government to put the RTFO on hold. It urged people to email Kelly to ask her to suspend its introduction. It warned that important habitat was being decimated due to global biofuel production, threatening the survival of many species. It added: “In many cases, what is produced does not even deliver greenhouse gas savings - some are even more polluting than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace.”
The Royal Society in London and Greenpeace are among other groups who have warned that more needs to be known about the effects of biofuels before the RTFO is introduced.