Biofuels study announced

A new study into the environmental and economic impacts of biofuels has been announced by the Government.

The study comes amid rising concern that biofuels could be competing with food production, damaging the environment and even increasing carbon emissions - the very thing they aim to combat.

The research, which will be led by the Renewable Fuels Agency, will include an examination of the "indirect" or knock-on effects of producing the fuels, which are made from organic materials such as wheat, sugarcane and palm oil.

Recent research published in Science found that in some cases converting land to biofuel production caused many times more emissions than the savings the fuels delivered - for example from the large tracts of rainforest being cleared for palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

And in January a report from the Royal Society warned there was a risk that biofuels could fail to deliver hoped-for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and could damage the environment.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said biofuels had the potential to reduce the impact of transport on the environment, but only if they were sustainable. She insisted the Government would not go beyond its current biofuels targets until it was sure they could be met sustainably.

The UK's Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), which comes into force in April, requires 5 per cent of fuels for vehicles to come from renewable sources by 2010, with bioethanol and biodiesel being blended into conventional petrol and diesel respectively to cut their carbon footprint.

Kelly also said the results of the review announced today would inform policy for the EU, which is currently advocating a target of 10 per cent of transport fuels from biofuels by 2020, despite growing fears of the wider consequences the move could have. And she said the RTFO would allow the Government to gather data on the impacts of of the fuels.

"Future biofuels targets must also take into account the latest scientific evidence about the environmental effects of biofuel production. There has been much recent debate around the risks associated with overly rapid expansion of biofuel production, with evidence now emerging on the indirect, or 'displacement' impacts, of growing demand for agricultural production around the world," she said.

Knock-on effects of biofuel production which will be examined in the study could include what happens when crops such as oil seed rape are converted to biofuels, which could be produced sustainably in the UK but cause food manufacturers to turn to unsustainable palm oil as a substitute.

Image: The environmental impact of producing biofuels is under scrutiny

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