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Chartered Institution of Water and
Environmental Management (CIWEM)

106-109 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8QS  
Tel: 020 7831 3110   Fax: 020 7405 4967

Transport Biofuels


This Policy Position Statement discusses the developing role that transport biofuels are playing in both the UK and global economies and examines their environmental credentials.

CIWEM's position on biofuels:

  1. CIWEM contends that not all biofuels can be considered sustainable at the present time, and that representation of them in such a way creates a dangerous message.
  2. Accordingly, EU and UK targets and policies (such as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation) for the increased use of transport biofuels, are misguided and counter-productive.  Until such time as there are robust standards governing the sustainability of biofuels produced from crops grown specifically for that purpose, there should be a moratorium on policies to increase biofuel use, including suspension of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
  3. There is an urgent need for the development and effective enforcement of environmental assurance schemes for biofuels to guarantee the sustainability of the product.  To this end, CIWEM welcomes the Gallagher review of the economic and environmental impacts of biofuels use and its recommendations.
  4. Governments should only be promoting biofuels offering the greatest environmental benefits, e.g. those made from waste products, sustainably produced wood products in temperate zones and sugar-based bio-ethanol in tropical ones.
  5. CIWEM welcomes the findings of the King Review of low carbon cars.  CIWEM considers that the focus of EC policy should shift in the short term from encouraging biofuels to improved automotive technology. The automotive industry must be required to deliver significantly improved fuel efficiency levels in motor vehicles.
  6. CIWEM agrees with the Environmental Audit Committee that the current focus on biofuels constitutes a failure in the integration of climate change policy across government.  CIWEM agrees that delivery of a modal shift to lower carbon forms of transport (i.e. public transport) and more sustainable patterns of car use would deliver greater carbon savings than the current focus on biofuels.  Similarly, use of crops to produce transport biofuels is less effective in terms of carbon savings than stationary combustion of biomass.
  7. CIWEM urges greater research into the socio-economic and environmental impacts of biofuels expansion.  Many poor people are already suffering higher food costs as a result of competition between energy and food crops.
  8. The international community must collaborate as a matter of urgency in pursuing the development of next-generation biofuels as part of a concerted action to tackle climate change.  The UK Government should play a key part in such an initiative.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) is the leading professional body for the people who plan, protect and care for the environment and its resources, providing educational opportunities, independent information to the public and advice to government. Members in 97 countries include scientists, engineers, ecologists and students.


Biofuels are any kind of fuel made from living things, or from the waste they produce.

This is a very long and diverse list, including:

  • wood, wood chippings and straw
  • pellets or liquids made from wood
  • biogas (methane) from animals' excrement, or sewage sludge
  • ethanol, diesel or other liquid fuels made from processing plant material or waste oil

In recent years, the term "biofuel" has come to mean the last category - ethanol and diesel, made from crops including corn, sugarcane and rapeseed, for transport use and are the main focus of this PPS.  (other kinds e.g. wood etc are more commonly referred to as 'biomass').

Transport biofuels include:

  • Bioethanol: an alcohol-based fuel obtained from the fermenting of sugar or starch-based crops such as sugar cane, beet, wheat, barley and maize (corn). It can be blended in a range of proportions with petrol. E85 for example means 85% ethanol in the blend
  • Biodiesel: a manufactured, methyl-ester fuel from virgin or waste vegetable oils such as palm oil or rapeseed, or animal oils. It is usually blended with conventional diesel, in low concentrations and can be readily used in this form in existing vehicles.

These are first-generation fuels. Second-generation, emerging fuels include:

  • ligno-cellulosic ethanol: these use crops developed for maximum cellulose content and reduced lignin. They are being developed as genetically-modified plants with fermentation and processing using modified enzymes and bacteria
  • synthetic fuels produced by Fischer-Tropsch processes: these use carbon monoxide and hydrogen to produce various liquid hydrocarbons. Coal and natural gas have typically been used as feedstocks, but the goal is to use renewable resources from pyrolysis of biomass or various organic waste streams, as the conversion process is energy intensive.

Key Issues

UK production

In 2006 biofuels made up only 0.5% of total transport fuel sales in the UK. Following the introduction of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) in 2008 this is set to reach 5% in 2010-11, or 2.5 billion litres of renewable transport fuel. The Government expects UK biofuels to be supplied from a mix of domestic and imported feedstock: to meet the RTFO entirely from UK sources would require between 1-1.5 million hectares of land. The European Environment Agency (EEA)i has estimated that 0.8 mllion hectares of land could be available in the UK by 2010 and 1.1 million in 2020.

Production began at the UK's first bioethanol plant (British Sugar's Wissington facility in Norfolk)  in September 2007. Various plants are being planned or constructed, with an estimated production capacity of over 800 million litres. Biodiesel is produced in the UK from a mix including UK-sourced recycled waste vegetable oil and animal fats, oilseed rape, and other imported vegetable oils. Existing production capacity is about 600 million litres.

Global production - trends and demand

Global bioethanol production has risen sharply in the last decade, nearly doubling between 2000 and 2005 to 40 billion litres per year (approximately 1.2% of global fuel use). The smaller biodiesel industry has more than tripled in the same period. Currently, the US and Brazil each produce one third of the total global production of bioethanol, from mainly corn and sugar cane respectively.  Europe is the largest producer of biodiesel.

Top five biofuel producers in 2005

Country Million gallons Million litres Main feedstock


















corn, wheat, 
sugarbeet, wheat
























Source: EarthTrends, 2007 using data from WorldWatch, 2006 and U.S. Department of Energy, 2006


US bioethanol production is being rapidly expanded, in a collaboration of agribusiness and oil companies. The US President's State of the Union address in 2007 set a goal of replacing 15% of petrol use in cars with biofuels in the next decade, principally from corn.

In February 2007, the EU announced an increase in its biofuel targets from a 5.75% share of the market for petrol and diesel in transport by 2010 to 10% by 2020, acknowledging that meeting the biofuel targets will require biofuel imports. To meet the 10% obligation through locally sourced biofuel, the EU would need to convert more than 70% of its farmland to biofuel production. EU countries are already using imports of sugar cane and palm oil.

Political drivers

Concerns relating to domestic energy security arising from increasing global demand for fossil fuels, slowing production levels, increasing prices and political instability in a number of fossil fuel-rich nations, are proving strong drivers for the development of increased biofuel production.  In Europe, reliance on fossil fuel imports from the Middle East is expected to grow by 80% between 2000 and 2030.  Domestic production of biofuels is seen by many governments as a means of reducing exposure to such risks.  Increasing conventional fuel prices and Government subsidies and tax breaks are therefore stimulating the biofuels market.

A further driver is the perception of biofuels as 'renewable' and 'sustainable' because they are produced from plants which have recently taken up carbon during their growth process, as opposed to fossil fuels which utilise carbon which has been 'locked up' away from the atmosphere for millennia.  As a means of tackling climate change biofuels are therefore popular with politicians as they can be sold to the electorate as direct substitutes for fossil fuels without any need for change in behaviour or lifestyle (which will be required if meaningful carbon savings are to be delivered in the transport sector, but which will be unpopular with the motorist).

In the context of the UK's carbon emissions targets, road transport is an area of concern.  Fuel use for freight transport has nearly trebled since 1970 and has increased by 72% in the same period for passenger transportii .  The clear need to reduce emissions from road transport is resulting in biofuels being regarded as a 'quick fix' in this area, although there is increasing recognition that the benefits of biofuels are not clear cut and the UK Government recently called for an independent review of the indirect effects of biofuel productioniii.

Environmental and social impacts of biofuels

There is controversy and debate regarding the carbon-saving credentials of biofuels and whilst on cursory inspection they appear a more sustainable option than conventional fuels, many modes of production fail to stand up to more detailed scrutiny.

Despite the attractiveness of biofuels to politicians, there is political awareness of the many environmental concerns surrounding the use of first generation biofuels.  In the UK, Defra produced a document in 2007 entitled Biofuels: risks and opportunities which discusses these issues and sets out the UK Government's position.  The UK Government states that the sustainability issues currently surrounding biofuels are of real concern, and that "we do need to ensure that biofuel targets are matched with what can be produced sustainably"iv. CIWEM welcomes this recognition, but is concerned that it is not at present reflected in EU and UK policy.

The Environmental Audit Committee reported in January 2008 on its enquiry 'Are biofuels sustainable?'v (the findings of which CIWEM supports) and in response to this the Government announced in April 2008 a review to ensure that the full economic and environmental impacts of biofuel production are taken into account in Government policy from 2010 onwards. This review (The Gallagher Review) underlined concerns regarding land-use change and biodiversity loss, the impact on food prices and the need for standards to ensure the sustainability of any fuels produced.   It recommended a slowdown in the growth of biofuels production and an amendment of targets and biofuels policy to this effect.

Many biofuel crops have a high water demand and their planting can be associated with a lowered water table and an increase in forest fires. Sugar cane production in India has led to dramatically lowered water tables. In Malaysia and Indonesia, there has been a great expansion of palm oil plantations into rainforest land, mainly for food crops but increasingly for biofuels, and the habitat loss is endangering orangutans as well as releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere through rainforest clearance.  Clearing of land for large plantations also has impacts on surface water runoff, erosion and other disruption to local hydrology.

Large-scale biofuel production is energy intensive-taking into account fertilisation, pest management, transportation, storage, processing, other raw materials-and may not offer the environmental benefits that have been promoted by many producers. It has been claimed that biodiesel produced from palm oil can produce ten times the global warming effect of conventional dieselvi.  In terms of the efficiency in land use, as well as carbon savings, stationary combustion of biomass for local heating or electricity generation is in general a more efficient use of bioenergy.

For biofuels to contribute positively to transport needs, they need positive net energy balances. Automatically classifying biofuels as renewable energy regardless of how they are produced is disastrous for environmental and social objectives. For example, the majority of Brazil's carbon dioxide emissions are from deforestation. As advised by the WWF, Governments should only be promoting those biofuels offering the greatest environmental benefits, such as sustainably produced forest and wood products in temperate zones and sugar-based bio-ethanol in tropical ones (although even in such cases unsustainable practices are entirely possible).

As biofuel prices increase, there is a risk of increasing competition between food crops and fuel crops, with potentially devastating consequences for the world's poor. Sugar and palm oil prices have already increased, and corn prices in Mexico doubled over the past year.  At the same time, there may be benefits for some rural populations, with increased income from biofuel crop production providing the financial means to obtain more food.  It is likely that the effects of biofuel crop growth will be regionally variable and there is a need for detailed study into the likely social impacts of increased biofuel production.

Governments need to provide economic incentives to minimise competition between food and fuel crops, and to ensure the protection of water resources, high quality farming land, and biodiversity. The economic benefits of biofuels need to cost in the impacts on soil, water, climate change and rural communities. Primary forests need to be protected from plantations and from deliberate burning to clear them. It may be more effective to pursue more stringent vehicle fuel efficiency standards (as has been done in Europe on a voluntary level - to little effect) than to seek carbon savings through the use of biofuels, at least until the effectiveness of second generation fuels can be demonstrated.

Sustainable biofuels?

How will the rising global demand for biofuels be met? Where it is from transfer of existing arable land, food stocks will inevitably be affected, and where it comes from the transfer of high diversity, natural land to agriculture then the consequences are also potentially disastrous. As Lord Rooker, British Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food) said in a debate in March 2007, "chopping down forests to grow other trees to create biofuels-trees that may soak up less carbon-could have a negative effect on the planet. The simple answer of biofuels is not a simple answer." The UK Government is developing an environmental assurance scheme as part of the RTFO requiring companies to report on the greenhouse gas balance of their fuels and the previous land use of the crop sites, however, it is unlikely at this stage that the scheme will be effectively policed or enforced.

Second generation biofuels offer some hope of a more effective product which can be produced from a wider range of materials, therefore reducing the impact of issues such as competition with food crops and the destruction of forests.  Cellulosic ethanol for example has an energy yield far in excess of that consumed during production and consequently could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65-100% compared to petroleum, whilst at the same time placing less competition on land otherwise used for food production.  Ideally, a range of organic waste streams may in the future become viable feedstocks for biofuels.  This, allied to energy efficiency and conservation action best satisfies the principles of the energy hierarchy.  The technologies involved for second-generation fuels are currently some way from commercial viability and there is a need for considerable further investment and research, which should be supported by the international community.

In response to calls for a moratorium on biofuels until second generation products are available for use, the UK Government has stated that without a viable, long-term market for biofuels, the required investment in second generation fuels may never materialise.  The Environmental Audit Committee suggests that in order to stimulate the development of second generation biofuels, the RTFO should be reformed exclusively to stimulate the development and use of low carbon fuel technologies (as opposed to conventional biofuels) and that until such time as the promise of second generation fuels is fulfilled, there should be far greater focus on wider transport measures which themselves could deliver emissions savings of 14% from 1990 levels by 2020.  The Committee points out that current biofuels policy indicates a disjointed approach to tackling climate change.  CIWEM would support such observations, and contends that whilst second - or even later - generation biofuels may make a useful contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of transport, their development should not come at the expense of a raft of wider transport measures to reduce levels of car use, improve public transport and enhance fuel efficiency in vehicles, all of which will be required in order to meet carbon reduction targets.

September 2008

Note: CIWEM Policy Position Statements (PPS) represent the Institution's views on issues at a particular point in time. It is accepted that situations change as research provides new evidence. It should be understood, therefore, that CIWEM PPS's are under constant review, and that previously-held views may alter and lead to revised PPS's.

ii UK Energy sector indicators 2007 (
iii The Gallagher Review of the indirect effects of biofuels production, Renewable Fuels Agency, July 2008
iv Biofuels: Risks and opportunities.  Defra, October 2007
v Are biofuels sustainable? First Rreport of session 2007-08, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, January 2008


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Chartered Institution of Water and
Environmental Management (CIWEM)

106-109 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8QS  
Tel: 020 7831 3110   Fax: 020 7405 4967