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Transport: Renewable Fuel Obligation

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interest as an arable and grassland farmer.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to review the renewable transport fuel obligation for 5 per cent of all road vehicle fuel to be made up of biofuels by 2010.

My Lords, the Government will keep the United Kingdom’s biofuel targets under review in the light of the best available scientific evidence. The Secretary of State for Transport has commissioned a review of wider environmental and economic impacts of global biofuel production to be led by the Renewable Fuels Agency. The review will report at the end of June and its findings will be relevant to both domestic and European Union targets.

My Lords, I am grateful for that slightly positive Answer from the Minister. Can he confirm that the Chief Scientific Adviser to Defra, Professor Bob Watson, and the Government’s recently retired Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, have both cast serious doubts on the benefits of the use of biofuels to reach RTFO targets? Can he say whether the Government will follow their own scientists’ advice, or whether they are under the thumb of the European Commission, which I believe has said there is no chance of changing its biofuel targets?

My Lords, it is right that we follow the science and best available evidence on this and the views of those eminent scientists have to be taken carefully into consideration. We have adopted a cautious approach in implementing the RTFO scheme. At current estimates only 1 per cent of UK road transport fuels are made up of biofuels, so we do have a precautionary approach and strategy.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this obligation could easily be met if we were to use only home-grown and sustainable resources?

My Lords, that is a highly desirable objective. We place a premium on using high-grade home-grown feedstock to meet our obligation, as it is the best way to proceed. We currently need some imports, but, for the longer term, the noble Lord makes a very good point.

My Lords, can the Minister say how we will overcome the double whammy of the Americans giving a subsidy on bioethanol which is then exported and receives another subsidy when it comes in to the European Union to be sold?

My Lords, I am not sure that the double whammy particularly affects us. It is certainly true that the US is keen on promoting biofuels and has made something of a dash for them, along with Brazil, but I think that our cautious approach is right because we need to ensure that we source from sustainable origins. That must be the right approach. There is increased concern over the sustainability of biofuels. We need to be led by the science here and ensure that we take maximum benefit from the second-generation biofuels.

My Lords, are the Government not concerned about the amount of CO2 created in the production of biofuels? They have the advantage of being renewable, but their production creates a lot of CO2.

My Lords, that is another good point in the debate. There are good biofuels and bad biofuels. That is why we should be led by the science, to ensure that we have a sustainable feedstock, that we source from sustainable sources and that the technology used to create the biofuel does not create more of a problem than that which it is intended to solve.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, given that the enormous subsidisation and production of biofuels has made a considerable contribution to the current food shortage and the high price of food is causing great problems in many parts of the developing world, the United Nations food rapporteur has called for an immediate five-year moratorium on the production of all biofuels? Do the Government consider that they and the European Union should perhaps rethink and that this moratorium could be a good idea?

My Lords, the Government recognise that there is an issue here. We do not want to see the sourcing of material that creates or adds to the problem of world food shortages. That is why we have adopted a cautious approach and why we have asked Eddie Gallagher of the Renewable Fuels Agency to conduct his current review, so that we get our policy on the right side of the line. These are complex issues with regard to food shortages and we do not want to end up creating a problem. We recognise that there is an issue with world poverty.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a few thousand vehicles have broken down after using biofuels because their fuel lines and filters became clogged?

My Lords, I was not aware that that was a major problem. I know that one of our local bus companies runs on chip fat and I do not think that the proprietor of that company has experienced any great difficulties.

My Lords, how confident is the Minister about getting in enough biofuels to honour our commitment when, as he said, we are currently producing only 1 per cent of our needs? If the biofuels are to be imported, how can he guarantee that they will come from a sustainable source?

My Lords, before the certificates can be claimed there is a process which ensures that suppliers guarantee that the sources used are sustainable. However, we recognise that it is an issue, which is why we have instituted the Gallagher review. The obligation to hit 5 per cent by 2010 represents approximately 2.5 billion litres of biofuel. It is expected that that will be supplied from a mixture of domestic and imported feedstocks. We need to get the balance right, which is why we are asking the key questions on sustainability.

My Lords, what leeway do the Government have as they maintain their cautious approach and review this matter? Surely, as usual, it is imposed by Brussels and they have not much room for manoeuvre.

My Lords, we adopt our own policy on this. Our approach is guided by international conventions but we are adopting this precautionary approach. We are not being led by the nose by Brussels. I do not accept that point.