Environmental campaigners criticise biofuel rules

New rules which aim to make transport fuels greener are putting millions of people in the developing world at risk of being driven off their lands.

Oxfam said the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO). which requires 2.5 per cent of all petrol and diesel sold in UK forecourts to come from renewable biofuels, was contributing to human rights abuses and rising food prices.

The aid agency said the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues had estimated some 60 million indigenous people faced clearance from their land to make way for biofuel plantations such as palm oil.

Oxfam said it was investigating reports of human rights abuses and land-grabbing in Asia, Africa and South America and was concerned higher food prices could lead to greater hunger among the world's poor.

Ahead of the obligation's introduction tomorrow, Oxfam said British drivers were being forced into supporting the unsustainable policy, which environmentalists say is also contributing to deforestation and exacerbating climate change.

But the Government has insisted the gradual introduction of biofuels will cut millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly recently announced a review focusing on the "indirect" consequences of biofuel production such as changing the use of land from food to energy crops.

Oxfam policy adviser Robert Bailey today said pushing ahead with the RTFO before the evidence of the impact of biofuels was in was like "treating a patient with an untested medicine that could make them even more unwell".

"People in poor countries are being driven off their land to make way for new plantations," he said. "They are working in punishing conditions for pittance. The price of food is spiralling rapidly out of their reach and rainforests are being destroyed."

Oxfam wants the Government to call a halt to the RTFO until a thorough, independent, investigation has been undertaken and compulsory sustainability standards are in place.

The aid agency is joining with campaigners from Friends of the Earth and the RSPB in a protest outside Parliament today urging ministers not to push ahead with the policy.

But Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: "Gradually introducing biofuels could help save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the next few years and the UK has done more than any other country to make sure they are produced sustainably."

He said fuel suppliers would be required to report publicly on the sustainability of the biofuels they provide - an important step towards mandatory standards the Government was pressing for.

"We will not increase biofuels targets beyond 5 per cent unless we are satisfied this can be done without damaging environmental impacts," he added.

The introduction of the RTFO initially means all petrol and diesel sold in the UK will have to include at least 2.5 per cent biofuels, rising to 5 per cent by 2010.

But some scientists and green groups have voiced fears that far from being the silver bullet to solve climate change, they actually contribute more greenhouse gases through deforestation and the use of fertilisers than they save.

There are also concerns the switch to energy crops from food production - including a large-scale drive in the US to produce bioethanol from maize - is contributing to rising food prices.

Friends of the Earth has demanded transport's greenhouse gases be tackled by investing in better public transport and mandatory emissions limits on cars.

A survey for the environmental group found that fewer than one in seven of those who knew what biofuels were thought they were the best way to reduce emissions from road transport.

More than three-quarters (78 per cent) of the more than 2,000 adults polled agreed that European leaders should insist manufacturers double the fuel efficiency on new cars by 2020 and more than two thirds (70 per cent) thought that the UK Government is not doing enough to improve public transport.

Image: New biofuel rules are causing confusion [Europa]

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