Biofuels – Love them or loathe them

The UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels i

Love them or loathe them, it is certain that you can’t keep biofuels out of the headlines. Last year the financial pages hyped biofuels as the next big green investment opportunity.

This year the column inches paint an emotive picture of biofuels as the root of many evils currently afflicting the planet - rainforest destruction, starvation, poverty. It is probably safe to assume that neither picture is accurate.

But given that biofuels will almost certainly be part of our low-carbon energy future there is a genuine need for greater transparency and understanding, both with regards to the scale of benefits that biofuels can bring, but also over the risks that they carry.

When considering the scale of the impact, it is worth observing the normal modus operandi of the detractors of all forms of renewable energy, which is to pick on a single technology or process, present it as a ‘universal’ solution and then to ridicule this proposition.

Remember the images of a countryside swathed in wind turbines, as Bernard Ingham protested that wind ‘is not an answer to global warming’? Now we are told that there is simply not enough land to meet global demand for both fuels and food, but it is still not apparent who presented this as a serious proposal.

Given the scale of the challenge that we face, one might have hoped that the debate over climate change would have grown up, and those with a serious interest in securing stabilisation of CO2 concentrations at 550ppm would have accepted the reality that only a diverse combination of measures – each with their own advantages, limitations and risks – can together deliver progress.

There is no magic bullet.

Biofuels have a part to play, and in reality it is modest - the EU has limited its ambition for biofuels to 10% of the transport fuels market by 2020. The UK government estimates that its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation will be saving 1 Mtonnes of carbon annually by 2010; by no means the complete solution to the crisis of burgeoning transport emissions.

But this limited scope is no reason in itself not to pursue the opportunity: it is the sum of a series of actions, each pursued vigorously and effectively that will mitigate climate change. Dismissing a solution because it alone fails to deliver salvation, plays directly into the hands of those with a vested interest in doing no more than preserving the status quo.

So what of the well-publicized risks? It is true, there are risks inherent in a biofuels supply. As indeed there are in many of the steps that we must take in the path to tackling climate change, and at times society faces difficult decisions. But the suggestion that these are not being recognized and managed, whilst it might make good campaign fodder, is far off the mark.

The EU’s 10% biofuels target is itself rooted in the research of the European Environment Agency, which found that European agriculture could meet - sustainably -17% of our primary energy needs. The report carried the caveat that specific steps must be taken to develop these resources with proper environmental safeguards. The UK is doing just that. To support this, the Government has established an ambitious programme of carbon reporting for biofuels that has as its end goal an incentive framework that rewards biofuels not on volumes supplied, but on the basis of verified carbon savings.

In taking these steps the UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels industry. Indeed, the industry has gone a step further, proposing an ambitious timetable for the move to carbon-based incentives.

This is simply a case of good risk management for business. Any environmental policy that ignores sustainability, or any carbon abatement policy that cannot demonstrate its capacity to deliver carbon savings, is itself unsustainable and presents unacceptable risk to investors. The timetable provides a clear way forward, whilst accepting that we cannot regulate on the basis of carbon until we have the data to make accurate and informed decisions.

In the real world this takes time, but will result in a better system that is built on the solid foundation of reliable data, not an artifice that presents the illusion of progress but delivers no real safeguards. The UK biofuels supply chain is working towards implementing a system that is robust, credible and enduring, rather than dashing to deliver a quick fix that would inevitably unravel.

And there may be a bigger prize from this approach. A leadership position is only of value if others follow, and while the UK may be pursuing biofuels for carbon abatement goals, the motivation elsewhere in Europe today can be decidedly different. The only prospect for more widespread adoption of the UK approach will be if the Commission and other Member States are persuaded that it is a reliable, workable and effective tool for securing carbon savings. Biofuels’ detractors have far more to gain from supporting the UK policy than attacking it.

Graham is Head of Fuels and Heat at the Renewable Energy Association, an organisation representing a broad base of interests across the UK renewable energy sector. He has advised a range of Government and private clients, including the Department for Transport which he advised on the implementation of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times