Biofuels Discussion – The views of the Cambridge parliamentary candidates

I have recently been in touch with some of the Cambridge parliamentary candidates to ask their views on biofuels. The Green Party policy on biofuels is very clear and robust and amongst other things “calls for an immediate moratorium on agrofuels from largescale monocultures” (point C6 at The Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties do not have a written policy on biofuels and it seems important that this pressing issue is brought to their attention and their views are made available to voters. I have written to the candidates from these parties and the Green party to ask their views.

A recent post to this site gives a thorough analysis of the problems with biofuels.

I became concerned about the views on biofuels of Tony Juniper, the Cambridge Green party candidate, when I heard him speak in a radio interview at in which, when challenged on the EU biofuel targets, was rather ambivalent and said that he thinks
that “biofuels is a part of the equation”. This prompted me to write to him to ask for confirmation that he is in full agreement with the views stated in the Green Party policy, and was disappointed to discover that this is not the case. He gave the following response:

“I am very familar with these issues, not least through my many years working as the Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International. With this in mind the Green Party policy on this subject accords very closely with my own views. I might have one or two questions, however, for example in relation to sugar cane, that I believe can actually be quite good in achieving a useful carbon reduction, if done right. Of course this needs to include in relation to land use and food growing and also labour issues. Finally, I think we should say more about what fuel sources might work in the future in meeting the massive human need for energy that is not going to go away. A look at so called second and third generation biofuels would be illuminating in setting out what technologies we think might be acceptable, as well as those that we are sceptical about.”

Sugar cane plantations have had a devastating effect on Brazil’s Cerrado and it seems to me that Tony Juniper’s belief that sugar cane can be a good option does not actually “accord very closely” with the Green Party Policy which specifically includes sugar cane as part of the problem. (point CC252 I have asked him for the information on which he bases his view that sugar cane “can be quite good”.

The second area in which his view differs with Green Party policy is to do with second and third generation biofuels (CC254). The following articles give a convincing presentation of the problems with these:

The view supported by several of the NGOs mentioned below is that there is no such thing as ‘sustainable’ industrial biofuels. All will destroy natural habitats either directly or indirectly by displacing farmers from agricultural land. All involve the use of agrochemicals with toxic by products, heavy water use and soil erosion. In the light of this, I would like to hear exactly what kind of large-scale biofuel could possibly be “quite good”; the caveat used (“in relation to land use and food growing and also labour issues”) clearly needs to be fully explained.

It is worrying that biofuel proponents have been so successful that there are now government policy incentives in place whereby burning biofuel in power stations attracts twice the subsidies compared to on-land wind power generation. George Monbiot makes this point here.

With over a billion people in the world going hungry, it seems to me morally indefensible to use land to grow crops to power our vehicles rather than to feed hungry people.

When contacting the other parties, since they do not have a policy on biofuels, I quoted the Green Party Policy and asked whether they are in agreement with this. I have received the following response from Julian Huppert the Liberal Democrat candidate.

“I think there are real concerns about trying to develop wide-scale biofuels for exactly the reasons described. We would firstly ensure that the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) only permits sustainable biofuels as required by the EU 2009 Directive on the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and includes a calculation taking into account the effects of indirect land use change, and secondly aim to ensure that energy is supplied by more renewable and less damaging alternatives.”

I have raised the following points with him (based on information from the NGOs mentioned below).

1. The RTFO, and soon the European Directive (RED) are licensing all biofuels with false sustainability standards, and this applies to all large scale biofuels, even those made from Brazilian sugar cane. This is exactly what the problem is about and the Green Party policy gives examples of biofuels (including even rapeseed oil from Europe) which have a knock on impact on deforestation elsewhere in the world.,

2. The calculation to compensate for indirect land use change (ILUC) is completely inadequate. It allows just a few percent compensation as part of a “risk adder” when ILUC causes additional emissions of thousands of percent.

3. Both the RTFO and the RED make no inclusions for their wider ecological footprint including biodiversity losses and the attendant acceleration of climate feedbacks as ecosystems are systematically wiped out.

4. Both directives allow biofuels from countries where human rights abuses and land grabs are commonplace…i.e. even the safeguard against human rights abuses in both directorates is absent or entirely inadequate.

5. Currently it is illegal for the UK to have different “sustainability standards” from the EU: we need a new Government who has the courage to challenge this.

6. Also under EU rules, it is illegal to “discriminate” against particular biofuels for example because people have been evicted or even killed to produce them; (there are no adequate safeguards – even minimal additional safeguards are illegal)

7. Under EU rules, it is also illegal to “discriminate” against biofuels which can be shown to cause people to go hungry.

8. Although a final decision is still pending, the European Commission has proposed to class oil palm plantations as forests! So if natural forests are cut down for oil palm plantations, this is not classed as deforestation! Hence palm oil can still be classed as “sustainable”!!

9. Ironically there is actually no requirement on the UK to keep the RTFO in place and no renewable energy target for transport applies BEFORE 2020. This means that the UK or any other EU member government who is concerned about the problems outlined above can simply withdraw. By 2020 the EU legislation may well have been changed in view of new and ongoing evidence about biofuel impacts as well as fast increasing public opposition so not meeting the 2020 10% targets would not be an issue.

10. There is also currently no requirement to support biofuels in the heat and power sector. The Renewable Heat Incentive associated with this will go through Parliament later in the year.

11. You may be interested to know that a number of Lib Dem councillors and Green Party members in Bristol and Portland are fighting hard against the biofuel power stations proposed by W4B, using some of the arguments cited here.

I should mention that I’m not an expert in this field and have gained this information from discussions and reports from the following organisations: Biofuelwatch, Action Aid, Friends of the Earth, Global Forest Coalition, and World Rainforest Movement

I am calling on concerned individuals to contribute their views to this discussion. I will post here all further responses that I receive from the candidates.

3 thoughts on “Biofuels Discussion – The views of the Cambridge parliamentary candidates”

  1. Apparently the EU is now, belatedly, trying to take account of indirect land-use change (ILUC), e.g. see here. I would have thought that:
    1) Since you can’t fit a quart in a pint pot, “ILUC” is inevitable and is a matter for informed logical reasoning, not detailed bottom-up research.
    2) The EU’s RED and the UK’s RTFO should not have been implemented before the impacts had been properly thought through and investigated.

    In light of the accumulating evidence of the detrimental impacts and unsustainability of biofuels, perhaps parliamentary candidates could be asked whether they would vote for the immediate suspension of the RTFO, since, as detailed in the post (point 9), there seems to be no legal obstacle to the UK taking this action.

  2. Wouldn’t it be great to have a choice of candidates all working for environmental justice, in its broad sense?
    I hesitate to diss a Green candidate a week before the election, but I left the Labour party because Labour left its socialism – I don’t want the Green Party to be allowed to drift the same way.

    Here is what Tony Juniper said:

    “I certainly do not back more destruction for the production of biofuels. However, do bear in mind that in Brazil alone there is some 60 million hectares of degraded land that is not producing anything, and in many other tropical countries a similar situation prevails. Restoring the fertility of this land can lead to increased output of crops while at the same time keeping away from the forest frontier. Sugar cane in this sense could be grown without more forest clearance.

    This is a very complex set of issues and I fear that there is no simple answer. Rest assured, however, that I will stand up for the protection of nature and people over short-sighted and destructive policies promoting the production of biofuels.
    Best wishes, Tony Juniper”

    As he says the issues are complex, the waters easily muddied, and the devil in the detail.

    That is why I think it is critical to separate the greenwash provided by burning insignificant amounts of waste, from the industrial scale production of biofuel crops.

    When he says that sugar cane can restore soil fertility, is he talking about organic or perhaps permaculture, or some other production system that I don’t know about, or about intensively fertilised, oil dependent production?

    I would like to know more about the 60 million hectares of Brazil (and elsewhere) which are not producing anything, as I am concerned that this may include forest which is a carbon sink, and land inhabitated by indigenous peoples who are under severe threat.

    I do not feel assured that he will not support the use of biofuel in industrial power generation, since my follow up questions have not been answered.

  3. Response from Daniel Zeichner – Labour party candidate:

    These are clearly complex questions. Fortunately, the Zero Carbon Society, E3 Foundation and 4CMR web pages show our city is awash with able brains on this subject, of whom Jonathan Hollander and Stephen Stretton spring immediately to mind.

    Tim Joslin has raised the key question I feel – it is not merely a question of biofuels or no biofuels, but the opportunity costs involved. Essentially then, the question cannot be considered in isolation, but we must deal with the environmental question per se.

    Let us be clear, Labour has got the big decisions right on climate change. We’ve set tough targets nationally, and funded green technologies.

    The publication of the Stern Report was a key moment. Climate Change is real and we need to address it – whether biofuels are the answer, as you rightly note, is more than open to debate. Labour’s eco-record however deserves brief repetition:

    The UK is well ahead of Kyoto targets thanks to this government, but we cannot be complacent. We have insisted that all new homes will be zero-carbon from 2016. Over the next 3 years, our policies will mean that a further 5 million households will be helped with insulation, that 100 million low energy light bulbs will be given out; and other energy saving products will be provided to 4 million homes. I am encouraged that local institutions such as schools are leading the way. I recently visited Mayfield Primary, which has installed solar panels and smart electricity meters.

    If elected MP, I would seek to engage with green experts at both a local and national level, and harness the talent we have available within the city before I reach any decisive decisions on this question. I recognise the problems inherent within merely exporting the west’s problems to the developing world, and tough targets must be set for advanced economies concerning biofuels. This is a question for climate scientists more than politicians, and we should be led by the experts!

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