Schedule 6

Climate Change Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 8th July 2008.

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Renewable transport fuel obligations

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in schedule 6, page 75, line 38, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

‘(2) It is the duty of the Administrator to ensure that only renewable transport fuel that—

(a) causes or contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions over its total lifecycle from planting or production to use, and

(b) contributes to sustainable development and the protection or enhancement of the national or global environment generally, qualifies as a permitted fuel under this Act.’.

If we were in any doubt as to whether terms such as “renewable” and “sustainable” are used loosely, it has been clarified by the debate about biofuels, which are a clear example of something that is renewable—all biofuels are from a renewable source—that can be unsustainable. Most hon. Members will know of examples of wheat grown in north America that requires so much energy to be grown, fertilised and transported—

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sorry, the Minister is right to correct me. That maize requires so much energy that it may be making a contribution to climate change rather than tackling it. There are examples of deforestation in  other parts of the world that might be making way for the production of otherwise sustainable biofuels. Yet this is an area where there is a potential for CO2 reduction, and I am sure that many of us have examples of sustainable approaches to biofuels, using algae or switchgrass, or more energy-intensive crops such as sugar beet—provided that they are not grown on deforested land. There is also short rotation coppice, with willow in the UK. In my constituency, a company called Green Fuels sources local reused cooking oil and turns it into biodiesel. That is a very sustainable approach to providing transport fuel.

However, we are in a fast-moving policy landscape, as the Government would like to call it. Only yesterday, the Secretary of State told the House of Commons in the context of the Gallagher report, that

“Professor Gallagher also concludes that there is a risk that the uncontrolled expansion and use of biofuels could lead to unsustainable changes in land use, such as the destruction of rainforest to make way for the production of crops. That might, in turn, increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as contributing to higher food prices and shortages. The Gallagher report therefore concludes that the introduction of biofuels should be slowed until policies are in place to direct biofuel production on to marginal or idle land and until these are demonstrated to be effective.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 1169.]

And lo, within 24 hours an opportunity arises in this Bill to make such a policy change, through amendment No. 1 to schedule 6 on the renewable transport fuel obligation.

We are operating in the context of wider European policy, including the 2003 directive that mandates European nations to increase the proportion of road fuels from renewable sources to 5.75 per cent. by 2010, and the imminent renewable energy directive, which may raise that target to 10 per cent. by 2020. We agree with the Government’s statement, although it has come late in the day, that action is required at EU level to modify that imminent biofuels target and to place a moratorium—I would say—on biofuels targets until we have strict sustainability criteria in place. Yet the Government have pressed ahead with some policy in their own right, including the renewable transport fuel obligation introduced in April.

It is possible—although not necessarily likely—that the EU directive might not be agreed before April 2009, and that even if the push for a change in EU policy fails and the directive comes in we might be allowed to develop stricter criteria. Such criteria might not prevent the importation of other biofuels—I gather that that would be prevented under the directive—but they might provide the basis for the kind of regime that we have seen in other sectors, where labelling and public information might lead to more sustainable procurement policies being implemented by businesses or Departments. Nevertheless, we might still be able to contribute to a more sustainable policy on biofuels.

The Secretary of State said yesterday that she had done the two main things that this Government seem to do on environmental policy. One is to commission a report—she has done that and it was clear in its conclusions. The second is to begin a consultation—she will formally consult on slowing down the rate of increase in the renewable transport fuel obligation. In her concluding remarks, she also said that

“I will not hesitate to alter our policy if that is what the science suggests is appropriate.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 1171.]

This seems a golden opportunity to do just that. If we cannot do it in this Bill, I would like to hear from Ministers what exactly the Secretary of State meant by altering Government policy as opposed to EU policy. Could the biofuels targets be amended, and could we introduce conditions such as those in amendment No. 1, which link fuel not only to the physical fact of renewability, but to the actual

“reduction of carbon emissions over its total lifecycle”, which is the kind of sustainability criterion that we want to see throughout Europe? Is such a measure permissible and technically possible within Government policy at the moment, even in the context of European policy? We hope that it is, and that it will give us freedom to pursue a more sustainable policy on biofuels, even if European policy is moving slowly in that direction.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to this amendment, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on tabling it. I should first like to remind the Committee of events that took place in Committee Room 11, down the corridor, on 23 October last year, when a Delegated Legislation Committee met to vote on the renewable transport fuel obligation. Despite the fact that the Government’s own briefings admitted that

“There is currently no internationally agreed definition of a ‘sustainable biofuel’, nor a working standard that could be imposed”, the Government Members on the Committee proceeded to vote in favour of making the RTFO law. The only MPs on that Committee to vote against the RTFO on the grounds that it had no sustainability criteria attached to it were from the Conservative party—the Liberal Democrats abstained—so the RTFO became law.

I am therefore delighted—genuinely pleased—that the Liberal Democrats have looked more closely at the issue and that they have clearly decided that things must change. Although I am happy to support the amendment, it is a shame that we could not have halted the RTFO in its tracks earlier.

What exactly does the RTFO require? It stipulates that all fuel suppliers must ensure that 2.5 per cent. of  their sales in the UK come from biofuels from April this year. That figure will rise to 5 per cent. by 2010. The RTFO is designed to help bring the UK into line with the European Union biofuels directive, which sets targets for all EU countries to achieve biofuels usage rates of 2 per cent. by the end of 2005 and 5.75 per cent. by the end of 2010. A failure to ensure that such a vast amount of renewable fuels are obtained sustainably will negate any positive efforts to tackle climate change that such biofuels will supposedly bring, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. The notion of destroying vast swathes of pristine rain forest in a bid to protect the environment—

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the general functions of the administrator in relation to the schedule. We are not having a wide-ranging debate on biofuels. Members’ comments must relate to this schedule and the duties of the administrator.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I stand admonished, Mr. Atkinson.

We believe that such a notion is unacceptable. The current reporting requirement and the Government’s hopes to have mandatory sustainability standards in place by 2011 are not sufficient safeguards to protect the environment. By 2011, we will already have sold more than 5 billion litres of biofuels in the UK. Therefore, on what I rightly assert to be a moral principle alone, I repeat now what my party colleagues said in Committee Room 11 more than eight months ago: we cannot allow the Government, who up till now have shown little or no regard for the impact of biofuels imports on the environment, to set targets for biofuels with no statutory requirement for sustainability. That is why I am happy to support the amendment, which would place a sustainability requirement for the RTFO on a statutory footing.

It being One o’clock, The Chairmanadjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.