Biofuels will speed climate change, chief scientist says

Scottish farmers criticise warning and government policy delays, but charities call for more research as food prices soar

FARMERS in Scotland last night criticised a warning from the UK's chief environmental scientist that an increased reliance on biofuels could send greenhouse gas emissions soaring.

Professor Robert Watson spoke out just days before Westminster is to introduce a policy dictating minimum levels of the fuels at the pumps.

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He said it would "obviously be totally insane" to have a scheme aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by using biofuels, which instead led to an increase in emissions, and suggested a further review.

Prof Watson's calls for caution on implementation of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) angered Scottish farmers, who said the government should be pushing ahead with the promotion of biofuels.

John Picken, National Farmers Union Scotland combinable crops convener, said: "We are running out of time. I don't know where he has been over the last 20 years."

He described any government delays as a "shocking situation".

Dr Richard Tipper, technical director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, said although there could be some truth in Prof Watson's comments, he felt biofuels should be pursued, with any issues dealt with as and when they arose.

"If we try to stop the whole thing in its tracks, the companies will go out of business," he said. "The way these issues will be solved is by moving forward and not by stopping it all together."

James Withers, of the National Farmers Union Scotland, said the country had "real potential" in biofuel and could be a "solution to climate change".

However, he admitted that action had to be "based on scientists saying it is a sustainable way to go".

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The RTFO is due to take effect on 1 April, when biofuels will have to comprise at least 2.5 per cent of fuel at the pumps.

Biofuels, mainly ethanol and diesel made from plants, have been promoted as an alternative to the use of conventional fuels in transport, which account for about a quarter of global greenhouse emissions.

Their proponents say they are a sustainable solution to global warming. Crops such as palm oil, corn and sugar cane are grown as normal and processed for their energy.

They absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, meaning in principle fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel should have lower overall emissions than fossil fuels such as oil or coal.

But in recent months, grain prices have rocketed, with much of the demand coming from biofuel producers. The impact is felt on supermarket shelves in the UK, but much more in the developing world.

There has been a drop in oilseed rape production in Scotland between the end of 2006 and end of 2007 of 14 per cent from 38,000 hectares to 33,000. Farmers in the past year have shifted back into wheat and barley production as world prices have increased, making the crops more attractive to grow.

Prof Watson, chief scientist at the Department for the Environment, said the environmental sustainability of the biofuels needed verification.

"I think it's now indeed clear that while some sources of biofuels do appear to be potentially sustainable from an environmental point of view, others certainly are not," he said. And he called for a "willingness now to re-examine the situation before we go any further".

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Meanwhile yesterday, a coalition of the country's leading environmental and development groups wrote a collective letter to the government warning that its strategy risked doing more harm than good.

Oxfam, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others told Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, there was "a very real risk that the RTFO will make climate change worse, not better".

Doug Parr, chief scientific adviser of Greenpeace, said:

"For one of the government's top scientists to describe these plans as potentially insane suggests that something has gone seriously wrong here."

Abigail Bunker, agriculture policy officer of the RSPB, said: "Biofuels threaten untold damage to unique wildlife habitats across the world.

"Their production is already causing the destruction of rainforest, peatlands and grasslands and the release of huge amounts of carbon stored by trees and soil."

Yellow fields grow into black gold as Scotland reaps the green benefits

IN LATE spring, when many of Scotland's fields are bereft of life, a dazzling slash of yellow light slices across Priorletham Farm.

It is oilseed rape, a crop which is ideally suited to the climate north of the Border and which is helping to power the UK government's plans for a biofuel revolution.

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The owner of the St Andrews farm, John Picken – and many of his fellow farmers – believes its cultivation should be supported and encouraged, to help to sustain both his industry and the environment.

Oilseed rape, along with wheat and sugar, the UK's other biofuel crops, have been a beacon illuminating a sustainable future without fossil fuels.

Mr Picken said: "It's an arable farm. We've 600 acres, 500 arable. It's a family farm – very much a traditional farm. We have kind of specialised a bit into crops the farm does best.

"Scotland has a natural climate for oilseed rape," he added. "It's a relatively new crop to Scotland – in the last 20 years."

The oilseed rape is planted in rotation, once every five years, and Scottish farmers find it fits in well with their other crops. It had previously been more common south of the Border, but climate change has brought it north.

The long Scottish summer days help it to thrive, and last year Mr Picken achieved a 47 per cent oil content. The average is 40-42 per cent.

Once the vibrant yellow flowers die, farmers are left with the seed, which they extract when harvesting the plants with their combines. Mr Picken sells his seeds, which contain the oil, to merchants, who then pass it on to processing plants south of the Border.

The seeds are crushed and converted into products from cosmetics to fuel, before being sold on.

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Mr Picken wishes there were more governmental incentives to grow the crop and is frustrated at the delays in promotion of biofuels.

However, it won't stop him planting the seeds again this August, for the brilliant flowers to flourish in his fields next May. "Black gold, it might be called," he adds.

THE OTHER OPTIONS…THE environmental benefits of biofuels may be questionable, but experts say current technology provides little alternative.

Potential routes to cutting carbon emissions through transport, from the most basic to the very advanced, include:

• Using public transport instead of the car, a move both the Scottish and UK governments have been pushing for with little success for years.

• Hydrogen power. The problem is this is produced from natural gas, which is basically a fossil fuel and has all the related environmental problems. The carbon is stripped off to leave hydrogen.

• Electric cars. Renewable electricity is still difficult and expensive to produce – and electric cars have yet to catch on.

• High-octane fuels. These are created by adding chemicals to fuel which allow cars to get more energy out of it. They are more expensive and benefits are minimal.


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WHILE biofuels may be billed as environmentally preferable to fossil fuels, some experts admit they bring their own problems. These include:

&149 Deforestation, which will lead to increased carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity;

&149 Loss of land for food crops, which could send prices higher;

• Environmental damage from lorries transporting the fuels.