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The Carbon Brief: Is it bourgeois to worry about biofuels?


A committee of MPs approved new subsidies for bioenergy yesterday, despite controversy over the environmental impact of the fuels. Many academics appear convinced that generating power from some biofuels like palm oil may result in emissions going up rather than down. But are concerns about the sustainability of biofuels "bourgeois" when the country faces the challenge of keeping the lights on?

Arguments over the use of fuels derived from organic matter like plants or crops for transport and in power stations has raged ever since scientific studies began emerging showing that they may have a far higher impact on greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. Crops like palm oil and soy can compete with food crops for land,  ultimately resulting in more clearance of forest and grasslands for agricultural land - driving up emissions.

The UK's former chief scientific advisor Professor David King told Radio 4's Today programme yesterday that biofuels are "pretty much a dead letter" in terms of their ability to reduce emissions.

But on the same programme, energy minister John Hayes told listeners he is "not persuaded at all" by King's argument. Hayes said it's  "bourgeois" to worry about biofuels' climate impacts when the country needs to maintain energy security - and biofuels remain a part of the government's plans for meeting its EU-mandated 2020 renewables target.

Waving through

Yesterday afternoon, the obscurely-named Eleventh Delegated Legislation Committee voted for new support measures for renewables. First highlighted by the BBC, the vote covered a series of amendments to the Renewables Obligation (RO) - a subsidy to renewable power, several of which relate to bioenergy.

Some of the amendments set out new incentives for power plant to burn wood or plant material for some of all of the time. The new subsidies follow a consultation from DECC on what the levels should be.

Another amendment guarantees that an energy supplier may get " no more than four per cent" of its subsidies under the RO scheme from bioliquids. Bioliquids are liquid fuels made from organic sources - often vegetable oils like rapeseed, palm oil or soy. The amendment means that some power stations burning vegetable oils can be subsidised by the RO, but sets a cap on the subsidies. 

The vote is a routine part of passing through changes to legislation and the attention it attracted seems to have been a surprise to key stakeholders. A spokesperson for trade body the Renewable Energy Association (REA), which supports biofuels, told us yesterday was "flummoxed" by the BBC's report.

Palm oil

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) says the four per cent cap equates to approximately two terawatt hours of bioliquid electricity generation in 2017. The new limit on bioliquids has attracted criticism from anti biofuel campaigners - largely because of the potential that more palm oil could be imported to be burnt in UK power stations.

REA told us less than 0.1 per cent of biofuels in the transport sector are from palm oil, adding that the amount used in the power sector is probably "a similarly small figure" - so the new subsidies will not result in a rush of palm oil into UK power stations.

But anti-biofuels campaigner campaigner Kenneth Richter, from Friends of the Earth, said that the four per cent limit is "enormous"  - and that guaranteed subsidies will cause a significant growth in the consumption of palm oil in power stations. Campaign group BiofuelWatch has calculated that if all of the bioliquids burnt under this cap were palm oil - admittedly rather a big if - then "up to 500,000" tonnes of bioliquid would be burnt in UK power stations as a result.

The UK and EU have both introduced sustainability standards for the biofuels in their energy mix. But campaigners say that the sustainability criteria aren't strong enough to solve the problem. They point to studies by the European Commission showing emissions from palm oil can be worse than fossil fuels once land use change, deforestation and the draining of carbon-rich peatlands are taken into account.

MPs pointed out in yesterday's Committee meeting that Germany, France and the Netherlands have removed subsidies for bioliquids in the light of concerns about the sustainability of palm oil. John Hayes promised that his department would "look at the matter closely", but provided no further details - arguing that there is little sense to removing subsidies to all bioliquids because of problems with one of them. And with that, the new measures were voted through.

Argument over? Not likely

The argument is not all about bioliquids like palm oil. The new support measures for power stations that convert, or partially convert, to burning biomass are also attracting criticism. This means directly burning organic products like woods and crops in a power station instead of of fossil fuels.

Green campaigners argue DECC's figures show that burning whole conifer trees instead of coal would result in a 49 per cent increase in emissions over a forty year time period. But the REA says that this argument is " simply wrong" and is based on a misrepresentation of industry standards. While this argument has attracted less attention over recent years, it seems likely to rev up in the future.

In the meantime, it looks as though biofuels' overall carbon emissions may not be top of the agenda for politicians tangling with the energy system. Pressed yesterday on whether it is really 'bourgois' to worry whether the government's so-called 'green' policies could unintentionally drive up greenhouse gas emissions, rather them down, John Hayes did not seem very concerned.