16 November 2001

BOOST FOR ENERGY CROPS WELCOME, BUT HOW ABOUT MORE HELP FOR BIOFUELS?

More support for biofuel crops please. At first sight, to ask for further government action, a week after the allocation of £15.5m to help farmers and foresters establish energy crops, sounds both ungrateful and misplaced.

But it is neither. Welcome as the funding is for miscanthus or willow growers, far more could be done to boost the development of other energy crops. Lowering the duty on biofuels, such as bioethanol or biodiesel to parity with LPG would, in one simple and cheap step, launch a new industry.

The environment case for this new industry is compelling. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55-62% compared with mineral diesel. Particulate pollution would be cut and the fuels lower toxicity and better biodegradeability would reduce pollution risks from spills and leaks.

Economic arguments are also persuasive. Industry calculations show that given parity with LPG, at current fuel prices, oilseed rape for biodiesel production would be worth at least £150/t. Wheat for bioethanol would be worth at least £80/t. Prices at which most arable businesses can make a profit.

Neither would the benefit be confined solely to growers specialising in biofuels. Competition for markets would drive prices up across the board.

Some argue the environmental benefit delivered by cropping for biofuel would be a mere drop in the ocean of 21st century pollution. But it would, at least, be a significant start.

What stops our government following the lead of other EU countries, such as Germany, which are rapidly turning good biofuel ideas into reality? There is no lack of EU encouragement. Brussels wants biofuels to account for 2% of road fuel by 2005 and nearly 6% by 2010.

The Chancellors pre-budget statement on Tues, Nov 27 would be an ideal opportunity to do these crops the justice they deserve. If not, farmers, the public and green campaigners will want to know why biofuels enjoy life in the Continental fast lane but seem confined to the British hard shoulder.