As biofuels imports increase in the United Kingdom, policymakers remain largely uninformed about the true environmental and social costs of producing these fuels, posing a significant challenge for efforts to mandate their sustainable use.
In the first report since a U.K. mandate required that 2.5 percent of road transport fuel be supplied by biofuels, the independent agency charged with tracking the country's biofuels resources, the Renewable Fuels Agency, acknowledged last week that suppliers have been unable to prove the production methods for 80 percent of the country's biodiesel and ethanol.
As more countries worldwide implement similar biofuels mandates, the ability to require suppliers to prove the source and sustainability of their "renewable fuels" will be key for biofuels to replace fossil fuels without causing more environmental damage.
The U.K. government set a goal that 30 percent of the country's biofuels must meet environmental and social standards by the end of this year. The standards are meant to ensure that production of the fuels' feedstock does not result in biodiversity losses, carbon leakage, soil degradation, pollution, or violations of workers' rights. During the first month of the biofuels mandate - April to May of this year - only 19 percent met the standards.
"There is no obligation to provide this information yet. There's no penalty...so obviously they are not getting a lot of information," said Barbara Bramble, a senior international affairs advisor at the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation.
The mandate is part of a European Union directive for biofuels to supply 10 percent of the region's fuel by 2020. European countries advocate biofuels as a tool to lower their greenhouse gas emissions - the region has vowed to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020. But two landmark studies published in the journal Science this year suggest that if natural habitats are converted to cropland, the carbon released through clearing the land may outweigh the carbon dioxide emissions the biofuels were meant to avoid.
The U.K. report said that nearly half of the country's imported biodiesel in the April-to-May period was derived from soybeans. Nearly a third of this came from the United States and about 3 percent from tropical regions such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia (the rest was from Germany, Canada, and domestic sources). While all of the Malaysian biodiesel imports met the majority of the standards, only half of Indonesian imports met some of the standards, and no Brazilian suppliers could prove any compliance. The report said the county of origin was unknown for 50 percent of the imports.
The Renewable Fuels Agency has also been tasked with tracking the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by using biofuels in place of fossil fuels. For the 87 million liters of biofuel used in the U.K. during the April-to-May period, this usage avoided 42 percent of the emissions that would otherwise have been released through fuel burning, the report said. However, this figure excludes emissions from indirect land conversion, such as the removal of grasslands or forests to produce biofuels. "The Agency has recommended that indirect effects are included in future sustainability reporting and is working with the government to identify a way to do this," a press release said.
In response to the report, several environmental groups repeated their growing opposition to the U.K. biofuels mandate. "The shocking admission that we are unable to identify the origin of nearly half the biofuels used in the U.K. means that the government cannot assure the British people that the biofuels in their petrol tanks have not destroyed rainforests," said Asad Rehman, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth-UK.
European politicians are showing signs that they may relax the region's biofuels mandate, in part due to suspicions that competition for farmland from the fuels contributed to the sharp rise in food prices this summer. Countries are also preparing more stringent "sustainability criteria."
As more suppliers face hard questions about their biofuel production, this will likely improve the poor compliance reflected in the U.K. report. "Britain will get more information as they increase production," Bramble said. "It is really good that they're asking these questions now when [the mandate] is a very small amount."
One way to encourage sustainable biofuels production is to mandate maximization of energy return on investment. --there should be minimum limits on EROI for the production and distribution of biofuels. This would eliminate the ridiculous practice of producing biofuels in Europe, shipping it to the US, adding diesel and shipping it back to be sold as a blend. That would be a start, but the whole process needs a permaculture makeover in a serious way.
Production and distribution is only part of the picture. Sustainable use of biofuels necessitates efficient use of the product--that means NOT burning it in inefficient internal combustion engines or in old furnaces in uninsulated houses. I think most people are beginning to realize that if we were to attempt to replace all petroleum with biofuels, it would be a disastrous failure.