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Gov: UK biofuel probably made of starvation, rainforests

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The British government has released its first monthly report into biofuels used in the UK. It says that not much biofuel is used, and that in general it has very little idea if Blighty's biofuel is sustainably produced, what kind of land was used to make it or indeed where it comes from.

The figures are issued by the new Renewable Fuels Agency, whose CEO Nick Goodall states: "The RFA is pleased to be able to make this first set of data available. We will continue to publish information as soon as we are able, and will be reporting company performance figures in our October quarterly report."

The monthly report, which can be read in pdf format here, says that only 2.14 per cent of British fuel is biofuel. The government had hoped for 2.5 per cent this year.

As to the nature of the stuff, the RFA is confident in saying that's mostly (86 per cent) biodiesel rather than the more controversial bioethanol. This could be good news, as biodiesels are thought by some to have much greater potential for being sustainably sourced - that is, they could perhaps be produced without taking away land and food from hungry people, destruction of rainforest to grow feedstocks, etc.

However, the RFA doesn't really know if that's happening or not with regard to fuel being used in the UK. Less than 20 per cent of this month's supplies could be shown to meet any sustainability standards at all. Even among the righteous fifth, almost none were up to the full gov-approved "sustainable biofuel meta-standard". Most were approved at a lower level, and were said to "meet the majority of the environmental and/or social criteria". Even the full meta-standard fails to allow for deleterious knock-on effects caused indirectly by biofuel production, though the RFA plans to account for these in future.

Another thing the RFA didn't know much about is the type of land used to produce the UK's biofuels, this being unknown for 60 per cent of the supply. Where the land type was known, it was almost all cropland - though a fair bit of fuel was sourced instead from wastes such as tallow and old cooking oil. For more than 40 per cent of the UK supply, even the country of origin was unknown.

The one area in which the RFA was tolerably well-informed was that of feedstock, with about a third of the UK biofuel supply derived from soybeans and much of the rest from oilseed rape, sugar cane, palm oil and wastes such as tallow and used cooking oil.

Overall, the RFA felt that it only knew about half what it should. The data is so spotty, and biofuel penetration so limited in the UK, that it's hard to draw many meaningful conclusions. One might cautiously suggest, however, that the emerging popular picture of the linkage between current biofuel supplies and rainforest destruction and high food prices seems to be borne out. ®

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