[Mr. David Amess in the Chair] — Biofuels

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 5th June 2008.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire 3:17 pm, 5th June 2008

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I congratulate Mr. Yeo on introducing the debate, and it is good to see many members of the Committee here. It is also good to have the input of hon. Members who are not on the Committee. I always think that it is useful for Select Committee reports to have a wider airing in such Westminster Hall debates and for us to have contributions not only from those who have sat through all the evidence sessions.

This is a timely debate, although that is perhaps fortuitous, rather than necessarily by design. The Committee's inquiry took place at an important time in terms of the issue of biofuels. As we took our evidence in the months leading up to the publication of the report in January, there was a huge amount of public and scientific debate about the issue. More and more organisations came out and reached some of the same conclusions as the Committee. Whether it was the Royal Society, the UN, the OECD or the Government's own chief scientist, more and more people and organisations questioned the wisdom of our relentless pursuit of biofuels.

I joined the Committee last July, and this is the first time that I have served on a Select Committee; indeed, this is one of the first full inquiries that I have sat through. Having spent two years without being on a Select Committee, I found the experience incredibly refreshing. In politics, we generally take a position and then justify it. What I enjoyed about being on a Select Committee was that we took an issue in which we were interested, listened to all the evidence and then took a position. If there were more debates like this, and if the work of Select Committees got more publicity, the reputation of the House might be somewhat elevated in the minds of the general public.

I am interested in the environment and I am keen to tackle the problem of climate change. Before the inquiry, my general view on biofuels—I was not particularly informed, beyond reading the newspapers—was vaguely positive. They seemed quite a good idea, because we have major problems with pollution from road transport, and there seem to be few easy ways to wean ourselves off our addiction to the car as a means of getting around. Biofuels would seem to be a sensible way to solve part of the problem.

My only other experience of biofuels was about seven years ago, when I was living in Yorkshire. A friend was involved in a company that produced biofuels from used and waste cooking oils and was lobbying the Government to introduce a lower fuel duty on biofuels and make them a viable prospect. I thought that that was a very good idea and was delighted when the Government made that tax change and enabled such companies to prosper and sell their product to the market.

That was my initial view as I began the inquiry. However, I have been quite surprised by the evidence and the conclusions I have reached on biofuels. On a superficial level, we can all agree that the idea is sound, and that there are many biofuels, as we learned in the inquiry, that are in all ways good for the environment. Used cooking oil is one such instance. Rather than being treated as a waste product to be sent to landfill or pollute our waterways it is reused, and there are not the negative effects of land use change. That is definitely the type of product that we should support. Similarly, Brazilian sugar cane seems to tick all the boxes for sustainability and the efficiency of the product. The evidence that we heard was to some degree mixed, but there seems to be some cause for optimism about second or third generation biofuels and the possibility in future of harvesting more of the plant and getting a much better carbon reduction for the same amount of crops.

There is definitely some merit in the biofuels arena, but the damaging effects have been well documented—and highlighted in the debate today. It is not always certain that there will be overall carbon emission reductions, because of the amount of fertilizers and oil-based products that go into producing biofuel crops in the first place. There is an impact on food production and availability around the world; as we have heard, what is happening has other causes too, but I do not lightly dismiss the view of the UN expert I cited, and we would be unwise to do so. From a general, common-sense point of view, it is logical to conclude that if a farmer will get more money from growing biofuel crops than from growing food, with a consequent change in land use, there will be an impact on food supply in other countries, and particularly in some developing countries where there are general food shortages and great problems. The related issue that really struck me was deforestation, and the clearing of land for the growing of biofuels. Of course, we know that deforestation is one of the biggest causes of carbon emissions. About a fifth of the world's carbon emissions each year come from that, so it is hardly smart to clear forests to grow biofuels to make some reduction in the carbon emitted by road transport.

In the light of all those issues in relation to biofuels, it would seem clear that we need robust sustainability and emission reduction standards, so that customers can be certain when they buy fuel containing an element of biofuel that it will reduce a vehicle's overall emissions, and that it has been produced in a sustainable manner. That is why, as the report outlines, it is a matter of great concern that we have gone ahead with the target this year before those standards have been established. That rush is one mistake.

Another worry that arose in the evidence sessions was about trying to work out whether it is possible to create sustainability standards that are robust enough. It might be possible, and is more likely, in the case of UK production, where we have more control over regulation and accountability. However, how is it possible for sustainability standards for biofuels produced in other countries to capture the prospect, not necessarily of deforestation to grow biofuels, but of changes in land use from food crops to biofuels, followed by deforestation to grow food crops? The causal links may not be clear; they may be impossible to capture within sustainability standards. That is hugely likely to result in an increase in overall emissions. Until we manage to deal with such thorny issues about sustainability standards it is difficult to know how we can be confident about reducing emissions by going ahead with biofuels.

The value for money issue has rightly been raised. Mr. Hurd talked about it. The amounts of money that we are considering are very significant. From the renewable transport fuel obligation alone £500 million of revenue is lost to the Government. We must ask ourselves whether that is the best way of using £500 million to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. We need to consider the sums being spent on other initiatives and the results that can be achieved from promoting better, environmentally friendly driving, or energy efficiency. The latter is always the Cinderella of the climate change arguments, because everyone agrees that it is the best and probably the cheapest way to tackle climate change, but it is at the bottom of the pile for allocation of money and resources. Another suggestion made in evidence for improving the way we use such sums of money to tackle carbon emissions was avoiding deforestation schemes, or, indeed, using reforestation schemes to set up more carbon sinks. The value for money question has been left very much unanswered.

I understand why biofuels seem such an attractive solution from the point of view of the Department for Transport, and the elegance of being able to tell people they can keep driving and continue with the same behaviour, and that that will be fine because we shall reduce emissions none the less. There is a place in policy making for ensuring that people can continue with some of the same behaviour, but reducing the carbon impact of that. Indeed, some of the work that is happening in Europe and that the Government have been promoting, on cleaner vehicle standards, is a very good example. Obviously, that is a pain-free way to reduce emissions. However, it is not a silver bullet and we must also grasp the nettle of behaviour change. Some of the relevant resources might be better spent.

Ms Taylor talked about the priority for tackling climate change, and the Committee focuses on little else in its inquiries. I know that all its members are very committed to tackling climate change. What we were trying to explain in our report was that biofuels may not be the best way to do it, and that there are many other alternatives that we could pursue with the same resource, which would be more cost-effective. Given all the problems I have described, the current targets, by pushing and rushing towards biofuels, are counterproductive. That is not to say that biofuels cannot play an important role. However, we need to take stock and halt our rush towards biofuels until we can iron out some of the problems.

The Government, to their credit—it is not often that I say that—announced in February that they would review biofuels. That is very welcome. Governments are often criticised for U-turns, but it is not a sign of weakness to change one's mind when the facts change. The situation in the past few months has been changing rapidly. Many more reports and documents and much more information have been available to highlight the concerns. The issue is not for the Government only, as has been mentioned. It is an EU issue, because we are tied into the targets through the European Union. Indeed, the EU has been taking the lead on climate change in a global way. I am sure that the targets were put in place for the right reasons, and that that was very well meaning. However, the science has moved on somewhat, and we have a different understanding of biofuels. It is time to revise the targets down, until the sustainability concerns have been addressed. I hope that the Government will use their voice in Europe to discuss with our European partners how we can progress the issue at European level, stop the rush, take stock, and make sure that sustainability standards are in place and the issues are dealt with, before we go headlong into promoting biofuels.

I know that the Minister has a genuine desire to reduce transport emissions. The importance of the issue on both sides is symbolised by the to-ing and fro-ing of reports between the Government and the Committee, trying to see whether they can reach a common position. The Government have started to move on the issue, and I encourage them to move further and recognise that we need to stop the rush towards biofuels until the serious and real concerns about sustainability have been addressed.