'Green' fuel regulations come into force amid row

Regulations that require all petrol and diesel sold on UK forecourts to contain a small amount of 'green' fuel have come into force amid controversy about the impact of the scheme.

The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is being introduced with the aim of reducing the climate change emissions from transport, which produces more than a quarter of overall greenhouse gases in the UK.

Suppliers are required to source a small, but increasing, percentage of fuel from plant sources. The plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, so the resulting biofuels should in principle have lower net emissions than petrol or diesel.

But the policy, which initially requires a 2.5 per cent renewables content in all transport fuel, comes into force amid accusations biofuels are contributing to climate change, human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

Aid agency Oxfam 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. There are also concerns the demand for biofuels are driving up food prices and leading to human rights abuses and slave labour on plantations, Oxfam said.

The RSPB said forest clearance, use of fertilisers which produce greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and the energy used to convert crops to fuel and then transport them could all make the overall emissions of biofuels higher than their oil or diesel equivalents.

But farming leaders said different biofuel production systems had hugely different impacts on the environment, greenhouse gas emissions and whether they compete for land with food.

Sustainable biofuels grown in Britain from feed wheat that would otherwise be exported, or oilseed rape on set-aside land, could be produced in large enough quantities to meet the RTFO, National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall said. British-grown and processed biofuels could achieve savings of up to 64 per cent in greenhouse gases, he added.

And Dr Jeremy Woods, of the Royal Society's biofuels working group, said the RTFO helped send a message to industry that it was worth their while investing in improving existing biofuels and developing new, more efficient ones. He said it was "foolhardy" to demonise all biofuels, but that the RTFO must be amended to ensure it promoted the fuels with the lowest emissions.

There are also hopes that 'second-generation' biofuels - which can be made from food crop waste such as wheat straw and are much more efficient - are just a few years away.

The Government said the gradual introduction of biofuels will save 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2010 and that measures are being put in place to ensure sustainability.

Transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: "Making it easier for motorists to use greener fuel is an important step towards reducing carbon emissions from transport. It should help save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the coming years."

He said fuel suppliers would be required to report publicly on the carbon savings and sustainability of the biofuels they provide. The Government plans to have compulsory standards in place by 2010/11.

But opposition MPs have voiced disquiet about whether the current policy is endangering food security, threatening poverty, damaging natural habitats and potentially increasing climate change emissions.

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.

The Environmental Audit Committee and the Government's top environment adviser Professor Robert Watson are among those who have called for a halt to the RTFO until sustainability can be assured.

Image: The controversy over biofuels continues

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