Julian Huppert writes… Ending food-crop-based first-generation biofuels

The issue of food being used for fuel has become increasingly contentious. And decisions are fast approaching – in the European Parliament Liberal Democrat MEP colleagues are currently negotiating capping the use of damaging biofuels. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat Transport Minister will also be taking up the issue in the Council of Ministers.

While first generation biofuels were lauded as the future it is now clear they cause more problems than they solve. The UK’s Gallagher Review in 2010 in fact concluded that in some cases biofuels can generate a higher carbon footprint than fossil fuels and contribute to deforestation. Subsidies for first generation biofuels have now been condemned by the OECD, World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations to name but a few.

They highlight that not only have food-based biofuels proved to be environmentally unfriendly they have also had a damaging effect on communities across the globe. The need for land used to grow crops for fuels has led to land rights conflicts, land-grabbing, and the overall degradation of the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples. The subsidies we pay essentially drive these problems and we have a moral obligation to respond.

That is why the European Commission is now proposing to cap the volume of biofuels created from food crops at 5%. This will open up the market to second generation biofuels – which although in their infancy are expected to be a far more sustainable source. We hope that this will start the process to ensure that by 2020 all support for food-crop-based first-generation biofuels should be ended.

However, it is important that the negative implications of unsustainable biofuel production are not seen as reflective of biofuel as a whole. Second generation biofuels have substantial advantages, and will have a role to play in a sustainable future.

The Liberal Democrats will continue to support innovation and press for greener forms of energy. This year in Glasgow the Liberal Democrat Green Growth and Green Jobs policy paper will be presented demonstrating our ongoing commitment in this area. We are on the frontiers of new technologies and sciences and they will not always work as we hope. What is important is that we act quickly when they don’t and take swift action to improve them.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Richard Dean 9th Sep '13 - 2:52pm

    @Joe Otten. Agree absolutely. The whole biofuels mess damages the credibility of science and environment-based policy arguments. Who knows whether the recommendations will change again tomorrow, and then again the day after?

    I suppose we should generally go with whatever seems the best current advice, but with caution and not closing any options for ever since that advice may change at a future date.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 3:15pm

    @Simon Oliver

    Certain new cements and concretes sequester more carbon dioxide than are consumed in their manufacture. An example is Novacem, developed originally by Imperial College. The UK should be pushing for carbon neutral (or better) cements to be used in all suitable construction work throughout the European Union.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 3:17pm

    I tried to set up a biofuel business six years ago. My knowledge is now out of date, but I’d still like to make some points.

    Point 1: The EU should scrap all hard targets for renewable energy. Creating a 5% renewable oil target for the EU fuel standard created the rush for fuel crops in the first place. Output caps and targets also fail to consider the environmental costs of production and gives the same weighting to locally sourced oil as to oil shipped in from a different continent.

    Point 2: The EU should pay for any subsidies out of taxpayers money, not by penalising fossil fuel producers for doing what we want them to do (produce energy).

    Point 3: If fuel crops are so bad then why not just ban them? I wouldn’t be in favour of a ban, but I fail to see the merits of a 5% cap.

    Point 4: my solution to the renewable energy conundrum is to get rid of all fossil fuel and carbon penalties and to simply subsidise renewable energy with taxpayers money. This is the truth that seemingly people don’t want to face up to because they are scared of the taxpayer.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 3:38pm

    “not by penalising fossil fuel producers for doing what we want them to do (produce energy)”

    Errr. They generate a lot of carbon dioxide which we don’t want, and they don’t know how to remove it from their exhaust gases, so they dump into their nearest open sewer, the atmosphere. So, yes, tax them until their eyeballs bleed.

  • I agree with Eddie, capping food-crop-biofuels at 5% is pointless. It would be better to cap them at (or below) their current ACTUAL production levels rather than linking them as a percentage of our steadily increasing levels of consumption.

    However, I do disagree over an outright ban on “fuel crops”. On a micro-generation scale “fuel crops” can serve a purpose, but then on this scale the issue is more about making effective use of locally available resources that would otherwise go to waste. Also an outright ban would effectively stop all R&D in this area.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 4:34pm

    Thanks Roland. Yes I think there should be a market for locally produced fuel-crops. Yes this doesn’t help food prices, but we use land for lots of other things besides food.

    Nuclear Cockroach, I don’t think saying “err” to make out I’m stupid is fair. I also don’t see how taxing energy companies until their eyeballs bleed will provide an incentive to produce energy.

    However, to tackle the sensible suggestion that taxing emissions provides an incentive to research cleaner production, I would say that I don’t see how taking money from them will help their research. You could make the research emission tax deductible, but I think this would lead to either false accounting or an inefficient use of resources with excess time and money spent on research just to get rid of the tax. I think the market should be policed with regulation, rather than taxes.

    Julian Huppert also continues the theme of negative motivation taxes by saying that the 5% cap “will open up the market to second generation biofuels”. What it will definitely do is make biofuel even more expensive than it is now.

  • Peter Davies 9th Sep '13 - 4:52pm

    Bio-fuel is only ecologically sound when it uses the waste products of some other process (typically food production). The difficulty is defining waste material for the purposes of subsidy when the ‘waste’ then becomes more valuable than the ‘main’ product.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 4:54pm

    I feel bad for making a little negative swipe at the end of my last comment. Sorry, I am grateful that Julian communicates with us on Lib Dem Voice and I mean to comment constructively.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 4:57pm

    @Simon Oliver

    Glad to help. You might like to look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agM2pNHk69g

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 5:09pm

    @Eddie Sammon

    “I also don’t see how taxing energy companies until their eyeballs bleed will provide an incentive to produce energy. ”

    It will provide an incentive for them to reduce their emissions intensity.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 5:42pm

    Nuclear Cockroach, I said that directly below the quote you highlighted.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 5:58pm

    @Eddie Sammon

    You denied the utility of taxing polluters, by reference only to their one marketable output, energy. Rather sly that really: nice energy companies, good energy companies, lovely electricity. Don’t harm energy companies, nice energy companies. Lots of ways of producing electricity. Some of them severely damage the environment, unless disincentives are put in place, as the market does not price the pollution.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 6:13pm

    Nuclear Cockroach, thanks for the better contribution. I disagree about the market not pricing in pollution – people are prepared to pay a premium for environmentally friendly goods (recycled paper as an example). However, having said that, I would not be comfortable with just trusting potentially hugely damaging sites to just regulate themselves. This is why I think some external regulation is necessary, but not via a tax.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 6:41pm

    @Eddie Sammon

    There already is a tax. Its called the Emissions Trading Scheme. Unfortunately the permits to pollute have been strewn like confetti, rather than allowed to reach a level at which they provide genuine disincentives to pollute.

  • Ross Stalker 9th Sep '13 - 7:18pm

    Second generation biofuels have the potential to become more efficient than first generation biofuels in any case, if the possibilities of synthetic biology are fully explored.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '13 - 9:34pm

    Nuclear Cockroach, I know five years ago they were abandoning taxpayer subsidies and going down the emissions trading route, but like I said my knowledge is out of date so I wasn’t sure how this was going.

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