Biofuels are made from plant materials, like oilseed rape or wheat. Although biofuels crops can result in carbon savings, where they displace food production they may lead to increased food prices and in some areas of the world, wildlife habitats have been destroyed through the planting of new biofuels crops
What are biofuels?
Biofuels are fuels for transport made from plant or animal materials. Two common biofuels are:
- biodiesel: made from vegetable oil crops like palm or oilseed rape, and waste vegetable oil. It can be mixed with standard diesel and used in normal diesel engines
- bioethanol: made by fermenting starchy and sugary crops such as sugar beet and wheat. It is mixed with petrol
Biofuels can help improve energy security because they reduce our dependence on oil and gas.
A five per cent blend of biodiesel is already widely used in much of the UK. This is suitable for use in all diesel vehicles without any modification, and it is dispensed through normal pumps. A five per cent blend of ethanol is also sold in some filling stations.
Some biofuels are better than others
Some biofuels can lead to loss of important habitats and wildlife, and can have negative social impacts such as rising food prices.
Growing biofuel crops requires fertilizers, which take a lot of energy to produce, and can lead to pollution and soil erosion. These and other impacts from producing and transporting biofuels can reduce, or even cancel out, the benefits.
Increased production of biofuels will need more land to grow the crops they are made from. This could be taken from land currently used for growing food, or created from natural habitats like forests or wetlands, which can have serious consequences for the environment.
However, new techniques for the production of biofuels from wood and high yielding grass crops such as miscanthus are likely to lead to the generation of biofuels from less productive land which is less suited to food production.
Some biofuels are made from crops that are also used for food. Increased demand for biofuels could force up the price of these crops, making food more expensive. While this improves the income of farmers across the world and leads to increased production from marginal land it also creates problems for those on the lowest incomes.
Many governments around the world are trying to encourage increased biofuel production and this increase is happening rapidly. The scale and speed of these changes mean that the balance between benefits and potential negative effects from biofuels are still not fully understood.
The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) and action to encourage the best biofuels
The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation requires UK fuel suppliers to include a certain amount of biofuel in the fuel that they supply. In order to encourage them to source the best biofuels, fuel suppliers are obliged to report on:
- the reduction in emissions by supplying the biofuel, compared to the fossil fuel that it has replaced
- the way in which the biofuel is produced, to help ensure that any negative environmental or social impacts are minimised
The government has said that no more than five per cent fuel in the UK will be biofuel until it can be sure that it is supplied in a way that avoids negative side effects. The European Union has proposed a target of 10 per cent of vehicle fuel to be biofuel by 2020 but the government is campaigning for this to be conditional on the indirect impacts of biofuels being adequately addressed.