Revolution at the petrol pumps as Government backs biofuels
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 07 November 2005
Every British motorist will soon be driving on petrol made from sugar
beet and diesel made from oilseed rape as part of the Government's
fight against climate change.
Biofuels, which are made from crops and do not add to the emissions
of carbon dioxide (CO2) causing global warming, are to become an
everyday feature of UK road transport, in the biggest fuel shift
since unleaded petrol was introduced more than 15 years ago.
The Government is drawing up a biofuel obligation, which will require
oil companies such as Shell and BP to blend a fixed proportion of
biofuels - initially 5 per cent - with all the petrol and diesel that
they sell on garage forecourts.
The measure will be similar to the present renewables obligation on
the electricity supply companies, which requires them to provide an
increasing amount of their electricity from renewable sources, such
as wind power.
Under the new proposal, all UK petrol will be blended with ethanol, a
fuel made from sugar beet or wheat, and diesel will be blended with
biodiesel made from oilseed rape or recycled vegetable oil.
Unlike the fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal, which when burned add to
the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, biofuels are
"carbon neutral " - because the CO2 they produce when burnt was
absorbed from the atmosphere by the crops used to make them.
The new mixes will make little practical difference to the motorist -
they will go straight into standard engines and will not push up pump
prices because of lower Treasury duty on biofuels - but they will
make an enormous difference to Britain's carbon emissions.
Replacing 5 per cent of Britain's standard road transport fuel
consumption with biofuels is calculated to save a million tonnes of
emissions annually, out of Britain's current total of 155mtC (million
tonnes of carbon).
The Government is desperate for the saving because it is struggling
to meet its much-promised commitment to cut British CO2 emissions
back to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 - a figure of 129mtC.
On present trends, the Government will fall embarrassingly short of
this target, and its prospective failure is undermining Tony Blair's
status as a world leader on climate change.
The Government is conducting an intensive inter-departmental review
of the measures in its current climate change programme, to try to
bring the CO 2 target back within reach. The results will be
announced by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret
Beckett, in the next few weeks. It is likely the biofuel obligation -
strongly supported by Mr Blair himself - will be one of the main
planks of the programme.
Elliot Morley, the minister for Climate Change and Mrs Beckett's
deputy, who is in day-to-day charge of the review, says in an
interview with The Independent today that he thinks the target can
still be met. "I think we can get a downward trajectory that will get
us to the 20 per cent. It can be done," he said.
Speaking of the biofuel obligation, Mr Morley said he hoped its
announcement would kick-start a domestic biofuel industry in the UK.
At present, Britain produces a small amount of biodiesel, mainly from
small plants, but no ethanol at all, and most of the biofuel required
under the obligation will at first have to be imported from countries
such as Brazil, which produces large amounts. But that is likely to
"A lot of people in the UK are waiting for a signal that this is
going to be a long-term business," Mr Morley said.
A case in point is British Sugar, which is seeking planning
permission for a multimillion-pound ethanol plant to be built on to
its giant sugar-beet processing plant at Wissington, near Downham
Market in Norfolk, which will be capable of producing 55,000 tonnes
or 70m litres of ethanol annually, and could be operating by 2007.
Although British biofuel production is low, consumption is growing,
and biofuel 5 per cent blends are starting to become available,
especially in the south of England. Biodiesel blends are available at
more than 150 outlets and ethanol-petrol blends are available at some
Tesco supermarket sites, although the oil "majors" such as Shell and
BP do not retail biofuels as yet.
However, both companies said at the weekend that they would go along
with any biofuel obligation.
The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth strongly
approves of the biofuel obligation. "We welcome it warmly because we
have to move away from fossil fuels to counter climate change, which
is the number one problem facing the world," said Roger Higman, the
group's senior energy campaigner.
However, Mr Higman warned that the Government needed to be sure that
the means of production were not themselves environmentally damaging.
"We would need a strong accreditation scheme to be sure that the
crops used to make the fuel had been grown in a sustainable way," he
said. " For example, you might have rainforest cleared for palm oil
plantations to make biodiesel."
Britain has lagged behind many other countries in biofuel
development. Brazil has led the world, producing vast amounts of
ethanol from sugar cane and building a specialised motor industry to
run on it. American output of ethanol from maize is now rising at 30
per cent a year. Germany is raising output of biodiesel by nearly 50
per cent a year and China has built the world's biggest ethanol
What are biofuels?
By Matthew Beard
Biofuel is any fuel that derives from biomass - recently living
organisms or their metabolic by-products, such as manure from cows.
Unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal and nuclear
fuels, biofuels are a renewable energy source. They have the
advantage of being " carbon neutral": although burning them releases
carbon into the atmosphere, they have already absorbed that carbon as
plants. For this reason they are championed by environmentalists as a
way to reduce CO2 released into the atmosphere by using them to
replace non-renewable energy sources.
Bioenergy covers 15 per cent of the world's energy consumption,
mostly in developing countries where it is used for direct heating
rather than electricity production.
There are three categories of biofuels - solid, liquid and gas. Of
the liquids used as vehicle fuel, the two most common are biodiesel,
made from oil seeds and, as a replacement for petrol, ethanol made
from corn, sugar or grain.