[Mr. David Amess in the Chair] — Biofuels

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:45 pm on 5th June 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 2:45 pm, 5th June 2008

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the Environmental Audit Committee's report, "Are Biofuels Sustainable?" I thank our Chairman, Mr. Yeo, for presenting such an informed summary of the Committee's detailed work. I am really pleased to see so many Committee members here today and that so many people want to speak. I hope that my contribution will support the Minister in the leadership role that we feel he ought to take in Europe.

Our report is unprecedented: we took evidence, produced our report, gave it to the Government, received their response, and then sent it back again, with the following recommendation:

"Without standards for sustainability and safeguards to protect carbon sinks we believe policies that encourage demand for first generation biofuels are damaging. We reiterate our case for a moratorium on policies aimed at increasing the use of biofuels and urge the Government to resist attempts to increase EU biofuel targets."

We want to put that recommendation in the context of the current debate.

Earlier this week, we debated energy from renewable resources and the strength of the European Scrutiny Committee's report. What came out of that debate was that it is essential to have the right environmental objectives, but that if we do not get the instruments right, we will undermine the whole principle of environmental sustainability. We need environmental objectives and we must do all we can on renewable energy, and sustainable transport and energy, but if the outcome is flawed and brings with it unintended consequences, as are only now coming to the fore, we shall be doing the environmental movement a great disservice.

It is time that the Government took a deep breath and considered how they can use the evidence and scientific base set out by our Chairman to inform the debate taking place on the international and European stages. I make that point in light of the fact that this week is the European Parliament's green week. I would like to share with hon. Members the opening speech made by the Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, when he set out all the different debates taking place in the European Parliament and Commission. He said:

"European environmental policies have delivered immense benefits to Europe's citizens. Their air is cleaner, their beaches and rivers are cleaner and pollutants such as lead in petrol have been banned."

However, he went on to say that

"sometimes we need to take a step back and look at just how far we still are from a model of development that is genuinely sustainable...Biofuels are a good example. This single term covers a wide range of products that are, in fact, very different in their impacts. The carbon saving a biofuel offers compared with a mineral oil fuel can vary from well over 50 per cent. to virtually zero, depending on what kind of biomass it is made from and where this is grown. The same factors make for big variations in the extent to which biofuels add to pressure on land resources or contribute to pushing up food prices. It is for these reasons that the European Union is drawing up binding environmental and social sustainability criteria that biofuels sold in Europe will have to meet".

I know that the Minister takes these things seriously, because many of the issues that we are raising today were flagged up during the statutory instrument proceedings, at which we were both present. Many of the concerns that subsequently became evidence in the Committee's report were present in that debate. It took place a couple of months ago, and now we have the weight of our Committee's report, which I hope will give the Minister ammunition when he takes part in all those debates in the European Commission, so that he can use our evidence and share our concern that, at the very least, there should be a moratorium.

I am conscious that over the weekend there is an EU Energy Council, at which the Government will be present. I should like the Minister, during today's winding-up speech in response to the report, to say how he will use the Gallagher report, which the Government commissioned, to inform the EU Council debate this weekend. I should like him to confirm for the record the current situation with the Gallagher report, because my understanding—borne out by the statutory instrument debate about renewable transport and the fuel obligation—was that the Government would conduct various reviews and ask Ed Gallagher to produce the report, which he would then use to help us reach the sustainability standards that we want.

I understand that the report is due out on 26 June, but I understand from Friends of the Earth that a draft presentation of it took place earlier this week, or last week. We shall not have seen the full draft report before those important discussions in Europe, so I simply want the Minister to comment further on its terms of reference, and to share with us the reason why the draft report has not been made available in full, and whether it expresses any concerns that support our Committee's recommendations in response to the wide-ranging evidence that we received.

The most important point is that we must have sustainability standards. If we are to have them by 2011, and we are introducing the obligation for biofuels but do not have the sustainability standards in place now, that will have a real impact and undermine all that we are trying to do. It might stop us developing other transport policies that could get us to where we need to be without going down that route. It is also essential that the industry has some certainty and knows which direction to take.

The most important thing is that we establish the sustainability criteria, and then we can see exactly what part biofuels have to play. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to look very seriously indeed at our proposals for a moratorium—at least until we have those standards.