Only 4 percent of biofuel imported for use in the UK — and 20 percent of biofuel used overall — meets the environmental sustainability standard set by the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RFTO), reports a new assessment from the Renewable Fuels Agency.
The report found Britain exceeded its overall biofuel target of 2.5 percent of the total road transport fuel supply in the first year of the fuel mandate, but that only a handful of companies met environmental targets with fully verified data. Among the companies meeting all three of the government’s sustainability criteria for biofuel imports were ConocoPhillips, Greenergy, Lissana, and Mabanaft. Esso, Harvest, Petroplus, BP, and Shell met two of the three targets.
Deforested area and healthy forest in Borneo.
The report cited research showing that biodiesel produced from palm oil can have a carbon payback time of 130 years relative to conventional gasoline when oil palm plantations are grown in place of rainforests or peat swamps.
Chevron and Total performed poorly, notching only one of the targets. Morgan Stanley fared the worst, meeting none of the sustainability criteria.
“Clearly, this provides little assurance about the way the feedstock was grown and any environmental and social impacts it may have had,” said the report.
But the standards are about to get a lot tougher. Starting in 2010, indirect effects of biofuel production — including deforestation — will have to be factored in to lifecycle analysis. In 2008/2009 42 percent of previous land-use was reported as ‘unknown’, due to “a lack of verifiable evidence gathered from supply chains,” according to the report. That means a substantial proportion of biofuels used over the past year in the UK could have contributed to tropical deforestation in Southeast Asia (for palm biodiesel) or the Amazon (for soy biodiesel or cane ethanol).
Under the European Union’s new Renewable Energy Directive (RED) “suppliers will have to demonstrate that their feedstocks were not sourced from carbon rich land,” stated the report, which also cautioned that “it is extremely challenging to assess the impacts accurately and precisely.”
This uncertainty has environmentalists wary about the government’s push to expand use of biofuels.
“In its first annual report the RFA paints a shocking picture of the true impact of biofuels being produced in the UK for use in our cars,” said Kenneth Richter of Friends of the Earth in a statement. “Biofuels are not the answer to our energy woes – the UK should scrap its targets and must focus our attention on developing greener transport alternatives to cars, such as fast and affordable rail services and cycling and walking.”
REFERENCE: Renewable Fuels Agency (2010). 2008/09 Annual Report to Parliament on the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.