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A misjudged push for `green' fuels could instead damage the climate and trash rainforests, according to the UK's largest environmental groups today.
Biofuels - which are similar to petrol but less environmentally damaging because they are made from crops and wastes - could play an important role in tackling global warming. But, say bosses from the RSPB, WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the Government's dash for biofuels is ill thought out, lacks appropriate safeguards and could be creating more problems than it solves.
The Government proposal - known as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) - could, in its present form, see businesses producing biofuels by destroying rainforests and wetlands, not only threatening endangered habitats and species but also releasing far more carbon into the atmosphere than could ever hope to be saved by replacing fossil fuels.
The groups are demanding the Obligation is tightened up so that biofuel producers must meet minimum greenhouse gas and sustainability standards, with environmental audits of the whole life-cycle of the fuels, from growing the crop to transporting it to the pump.
Dr Douglas Parr, Chief Scientist at Greenpeace, said: "In its current form, this proposal is monumentally complacent. It could see biofuel production wrecking the climate rather than help it. The Government must sort out this botched plan or risk losing the value that biofuels can offer."
Mark Avery, Director of Conservation at the RSPB, said "This proposal threatens to accelerate the destruction of some of the world's most precious habitats and wildlife. Without environmental standards, biofuels will be little more than a green con."
Adam Harrison, Food and Agriculture officer at WWF said: "The government's policy on biofuels is in danger of doing more harm than good. Without tough minimum standards, we risk escalating deforestation and even increasing our CO2 emissions."
Ed Matthew of Friends of the Earth, said: "It doesn't seem possible that the Government could design a system for developing the biofuel industry that could actually make climate change worse but they seem to be managing it. Biofuels can be an important part of the solution to climate change but without rapid action from Government to toughen up the standards the opportunity, and we may only have one, will be lost."
The group's full statement is:
The current political and business enthusiasm for renewable biofuels is understandable. This emerging industry could play an important role in tackling climate change. However, without appropriate safeguards, this flagship policy could have disastrous unintended consequences - actually increasing carbon emissions, intensifying deforestation and causing extensive negative social impacts.
We are concerned that Government's plans to promote biofuels through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), lack these precautions.
Greenhouse gas emissions savings from different biofuels vary widely and some can even result in an overall increase. The RTFO as proposed fails to distinguish between the biofuels that can contribute most to tackling climate change.
In addition, without strong, mandatory standards in place the RTFO will attract biofuels produced at the expense of forests, peat lands and natural grasslands in places such as Brazil and Indonesia. As well as being hugely important habitats, their destruction will add huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Making biodiesel from soy planted on cleared rainforest takes 200 years before it could be considered carbon neutral.
The expansion of tropical crops such as palm oil is also linked to the loss of indigenous peoples land rights, human rights abuse and the destruction of local communities' natural resources.
To gain our support, the RTFO must:
Ensure that biofuels meet strict externally audited, widely accepted and mandatory sustainability and greenhouse gas balance standards, including at least a 50% saving on greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels, taking a whole life-cycle approach
Take account of the greenhouse gases caused by land-use change and forest clearance to grow biofuels so that where high carbon land-uses are lost, no saving is claimed.
Although additional measures may become necessary, with these safeguards in place, biofuels are much more likely to contribute to a reduction in emissions from the transport sector without damaging the environment.