IT SEEMS LIKE a good idea to run our cars and other vehicles on ‘biofuels’– that is, fuels derived from plant or even animal matter. This is presumably what Gordon Brown was thinking when he declared that from 2008, all UK fuel suppliers must get 2.5% of their fuel from plants, rising to 5% in 2010. In the EU as a whole, biofuels are to provide 5.75% of transport fuel by 2010, and 10% by 2020. The governments of the USA, Brazil and many other countries are aiming for similar targets.

Biofuels seem like a good idea because they are apparently ‘carbon neutral’. That is to say, the carbon dioxide emitted when they are burnt is only carbon dioxide that has already been absorbed by the growing crop. Consequently, the argument goes, they do not add to global warming. So, is Brown’s drive for biofuels as good as it looks? The answer is a regretful but resounding “No!”

As a small country with a lot of cars, the UK cannot satisfy more than a tiny fraction of its biofuel from home-grown crops. So we will have to import most of it, and under current market conditions this will mean buying palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, palm and soya oil from South America, and ethanol fermented and distilled from sugar cane, corn, wheat and other grains from various sources.

Each of these has its problems. In the Far East, oil palm is a major cause of deforestation. Thousands of square kilometres of rainforest are burnt to make way for plantations every year, driving countless wildlife species into extinction. Growing palm oil to put into our fuel tanks is now the major driver of this environmental tragedy. It is also singularly unhelpful as regards global warming: to save one tonne of fossil CO2 emissions with oil-palm biodiesel means emitting as much as eleven times more from forest and peatland destruction. Similar figures apply to soya oil from South American forests.

Bioethanol has different but equally severe downsides. As David Pimentel of Cornell University demonstrates in his article ‘Corn Ethanol and the Disadvantages of Biofuel Production’, bioethanol demands an energy input representing 149% of its energy content, when the energy cost of fertilisers, tractor fuel, fermentation, distillation and industrial plant is included. Even if 100% of the US’s corn crop were devoted to bioethanol production, Pimentel calculates, it would still only satisfy 6% of the US’s demand for gasoline. To paraphrase, corn-based bioethanol is completely barmy.

And that is before counting the social cost of biofuel production. The demand for biofuels is already creating global food shortages and price rises – price rises which have a disproportionate impact on poor people. The speculative gains to be made from biofuel have also encouraged powerful agribusiness operators to drive subsistence farmers with insecure land title and indigenous people off their lands to make way for plantations, creating untold human suffering. One such hot-spot is Colombia, where murderous paramilitary groups operating with the support of government and biofuel companies are displacing tens of thousands of people from their lands.

SO WHAT CAN we do? First we must postpone the UK/EU measures to promote biofuels until their social, environmental and climate implications have been fully explored. This will also give time for companies to develop the promised ‘second generation’ biofuels made from wood and cellulosic crop wastes rather than foodstuffs. And we need to define binding sustainability criteria to apply to biofuels under the UK/EU regulations.

The key criteria are that the biofuels should, over their entire life cycle, contribute positively to climate, to biodiversity and to human needs. They should provide livelihoods for poor people and respect their land rights. They should be grown on land that has been degraded or abandoned, or that is unsuitable for food crops – or else be derived from wastes. And their cultivation should sequester CO2 from the atmosphere in soils and biomass, rather than releasing it.

It certainly should be possible for biofuels to be sustainable. There are millions of hectares of degraded land in the tropics on which palm oil could be established, the present problem being that it is cheaper to plant oil palm in virgin forest, using the income from timber sales to finance the operation. A discriminating biofuel market would direct the plantations onto degraded lands.

We also need to use novel plants such as Jatropha – a shrub capable of growing on arid, infertile soils across the tropics without fertilisers or pesticides, producing inedible but oily seeds ideal for biofuel production. Plantations have already been established on the fringes of the Sahara in Mali, and in Andhra Pradesh, India. These will come into production in the next few years, and jatropha enthusiasts hope that the product will be able to compete with palm oil on price alone.

Others are pinning their hopes on ‘seawater farms’ established along arid tropical coastlines (of which the world has some 40,000km) growing a mix of ‘halophyte’ (salt tolerant) species from shrimp to mangrove timber and samphire. Some species of samphire (Salicornia) produce fatty seeds from which an oil suitable for both food and biodiesel can be extracted. Plantations of Salicornia biglovii, a samphire native to Baja California, are currently being established at Bahía Kino, Mexico, within a mixed seawater farm that may ultimately grow to 30,000 hectares.

Within the UK one promising source of environmentally friendly biodiesel is waste cooking oil. For example McDonald’s has begun to use the waste oil from its 1,200 UK outlets to fuel its fleet of 155 vehicles, and estimates that it will save over 6 million litres of waste cooking oil from landfill every year. Ordinary drivers can also buy biodiesel processed from waste cooking oil from small companies such as Golden Fuels, which collects used oil from Oxford college kitchens. This resource is relatively small but it deserves to be fully utilised.

And it’s not just waste oil that can be used for biofuel, but all food waste, not to mention sewage – indeed, almost anything biodegradable. Richard Lilleystone of Gasrec, a company specialising in composting for methane production, estimates that every tonne of food waste can produce 50kg of methane which can then be compressed for automotive use. Thus the UK generates sufficient waste biomass to replace 20% of its diesel requirement. Of course, this would mean that many vehicles currently running on diesel would have to be converted to run on methane – something which could make good sense for heavily used commercial vehicles.

For lower mileage vehicles, another approach suggests itself: a move to electric propulsion, combined with an increased role for plant biomass – such as forestry waste, purpose-grown willow and poplar, and Miscanthus grass – for electricity generation.

But there is another priority that should come before all of these: making our vehicles more efficient in the first place. Almost all the technological advances in engine design of the last twenty years have gone into making cars heavier and capable of more thrusting acceleration, while efficiency has stagnated. Manufacturers must therefore be compelled to double – or better – the efficiency of their cars over the coming decade. This will produce far greater benefits, far faster, than any conceivable biofuel programme, and with none of the collateral human and environmental impacts.

ABOVE ALL, OF course, we need to use cars less and to walk more, cycle more and use more buses and trains.

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Oliver Tickell writes and campaigns on health and environmental issues.