Biofuels imports are tarnishing UK renewables

British farmers are being caught in the crossfire as eco-protestors wage war against biofuels. Johann Tasker reports

It is difficult to doubt the determination of eco-protestors who descended on one of England’s biggest biofuel depots in Essex last week.

Tanker lorries were prevented from accessing the Vopak facility at Thurrock – used by biofuel giant Greenergy to supply Tesco forecourts. Protesters clambered on to oil containers and unfurled a 35ft banner before the demonstration ended in 12 arrests.

Campaign spokesman George Monbiot says biofuels are “so damaging they make petroleum look green”. Their use, he adds, threatens to accelerate climate change and to trigger a global humanitarian disaster.

Much of this criticism centres on imported biofuels, so are British farmers merely caught in the crossfire? According to a report by the government’s Renewable Fuels Agency, some concerns are at least partly justified.

 Rainforests have been destroyed to create palm oil plantations.

The report, published last week, examines the supply of biofuels during the first month of the government’s recently introduced Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which requires that 2.5% of UK road fuels now come from renewable sources.

It shows that only 19% of the 87m litres of biofuel sold during April and May met environmental quality standards. Whether the rest was produced sustainably, nobody knows. Neither were suppliers able to say exactly where it came from.

The statistics have been seized upon by environmental campaigners who claim that an increasingly irresponsible biofuel industry is being allowed to grow unchecked. Conservationists, including the, claim the sector is in a mess and that biofuel standards must be strengthened before targets are raised further.

Yet a closer examination of the report reveals that biofuels produced from UK crops do in fact meet most green standards laid down by the government – although they account for less than 5% of a market dominated by imports, which do not.

It is this fact that worries supporters of the UK’s fledgling biofuels industry. By condemning bad practices overseas, environmentalists are in danger of undermining the prospects for British biofuel producers, says Kent farmer Andy Barr.

“Biofuels have been tarnished by ridiculous practices abroad,” he says. “No-one seemed to realise when they were first touted that all biofuels weren’t good. Now it would be a mistake to think they are all bad.”

Mr Barr is marketing director of the Weald Granary, a farmer-owned co-operative which, in conjunction with Greenwich University, has trialled different methods of crushing domestic oilseed rape to produce biofuel.


Imported oils*

Sugar cane & molasses

Sugar beet (UK)

Tallow/cooking oil (UK)

Oilseed rape (UK)


* soya, palm, osr, tallow and cooking oils

Source: Renewable Fuels Agency 











Part of the problem is the lack of an agreed methodology when it comes to measuring the sustainability of biofuel production. The government concedes that the range of existing standards is limited and none satisfy all the criteria.

In particular, statistics for greenhouse gas savings achieved by biofuels do not account for changes in land-use. The Renewable Fuels Agency has recommended that these effects are included in future reporting and is working with the government to do so.

Once this work is completed, UK farmers could have a bigger advantage over their overseas competitors because it should be easier to check whether biofuel crops are being grown sustainably – and to measure more accurately the effect.

“Bioethanol made from British sugar beet has a 71% greenhouse gas saving – similar to Brazilian bioethanol from sugar cane,” says Paul Thompson, policy analyst at the Renewable Energy Association. “The key difference is that British Sugar doesn’t have to clear a rainforest in East Anglia to produce it.”

In other words, some biofuels might indeed be greener than others. But until better standards are developed and implemented, it will be an uphill struggle in their battle to get the message across.