How many reports do we need highlighting the link between demand for biofuels and soaring food prices before the government does something about it?
Well, we could be about to get an answer.
According to The Guardian, the government's official Gallagher Review into biofuels could make extremely uncomfortable reading for those within Whitehall who perhaps hoped they would be able to stick with their proposed target of ensure five per cent of fuel comes from renewable sources by 2010.
Apparently, the review, which is due for publication next week and was commissioned by the Department for Transport itself, concludes that demand for biofuels has had a "significant" impact on world food prices and that the current targets require an urgent rethink.
The only surprise is that anyone should be surprised.
The simple fact is that with food shortages leaving over 100m people hungry and food prices soaring any agricultural land used to grow energy crops that could be used to grow food is only exacerbating the situation. You can cut the economics any which way you like, that is the situation.
The biodiesel industry can wail all it likes about the fact that its investments are being undermined and that governments are failing to take a consistent position, but anyone who invests in clean technologies accepts on the way in that while the rewards can be potentially massive some technologies will unfortunately fall by the way side.
To stick by an approach that has seen over a third of US corn and half of EU vegetable oils turned into biofuels at a time when food prices are soaring borders on the obscene. Moreover, anyone insisting, like the US and Brazilian governments, that the diversion of these crops into the tanks of people's cars is having a negligible impact on food prices are clearly deluding themselves.
It is painfully obvious that what is required is a major overhaul of global biofuel policy that ensures the only biofuels produced come from sources where it can be proved the crops have not displaced existing agricultural land or contributed indirectly or otherwise to deforestation.
That means the only biofuels authorised for use must be derived from waste organic matter, such as corn stalks or wood chips; crops that can be produced in an industrial context, such as algae; and perhaps crops such as switchgrass and jatropha that can be grown on marginal agricultural land not used for food production, although even here guarantees would be required that the crops do not spread onto established agricultural areas.
However, the chances of any of this being agreed any time soon still look remarkably slim given the the oil tanker-esque turning circles that tend to characterise shifts in governments' environmental policies.
No one wants knee jerk reactions from political leaders, but when it comes to tackling the biofuel issue in particular and the climate change challenge in general we do need a level of urgency that is currently lacking.
Fears over the wider impacts of biofuels first appeared in the mainstream media midway through last year and the research vindicating these fears emerged by the end of the year. And yet despite much rhetoric the government's official review is only appearing now and we can still expect it to be another six to 12 months before the controversial biofuel targets get changed - assuming that is that the government does the right thing and listens to the review's recommendations.
A similar thing is happening now with regards to renewable energy policy whereby countless reports, including one study this week from a parliamentary select committee and another from the government's own Renewables Advisory Board, have labelled the UK's renewable energy policy as inadequate. Yet the official review will not begin until later this summer and the full blown strategy designed to address the problem won't emerge until early next year.
Whitehall is hardly renowned for its panther-like agility and it could be argued that the biofuel saga provides ample evidence of the dangers associated with rushing out environmental policies. And yet, at a time when business leaders are actively demanding bolder action it seems perverse that no brainer decisions such as the revision of the UK's renewable energy targets, the introduction of a feed in tariff for microgeneration and the suspension of current biofuel targets are not being taken.
Right I'm off to try and build me a solar printing press, 'cos those things are going to change the world.
Have a good weekend,
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