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Royal Society: UK gov needs to grow a biofuels policy

Making a bad problem worse

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The British government must set policies to ensure that the current drive towards biofuels does not make a bad situation even worse.

Fuels derived from crops like palm oil have been hailed as a silver bullet for global warming and reliance on oil, but the Royal Society warns that unless proper policies are created biofuels could do as much harm as good.

The Society warns that the UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) comes into force in April 2008 does not include a requirement to reduce greenhouse gases. Biofuels may be carbon neutral, but it depends how and where they are produced. RTFO requires that five per cent of fuel sold in the UK comes from renewable resources by 2010.

The report, Sustainable Biofuels: Prospects and Challenges, accepts that biofuels have potential to help but only if policies and targets are established to reduce the possible downsides.

Professor John Pickett, who chaired the report, said: "Cars, lorries and domestic air travel are responsible for a massive 25 per cent of all the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and this figure is growing faster than for any other sector.

"The government must ensure that the RTFO promotes fuels with the lowest emissions by, for example, setting a greenhouse gas reduction target. This will help encourage the improvement of existing fuels and accelerate the development of new ones."

The Royal Society recomends that fuels are considered individually, and that such an assessment should look at the complete production cycle to see whether or not they are carbon neutral. Any assessment should consider what impact increased use of biofuels would have on land use where "unintended consequences may reduce or override the expected benefits". Finally, the Society says any assessment must look at global and regional impacts, not only at impact in the UK.

The report comes as European Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas admitted that EC biofuel targets were set without properly considering potential problems, such as pushing up the price of food and the destruction of virgin rainforest in order to plant trees for palm oil. Dimas said care was needed to avoid creating more environmental or social problems.

The Royal Society's report also calls for RTFO to be extended to 20 years in order to encourage long-term investment.

The full report is available to download from here. ®

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