Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Biodiesel is an important part of foreign policy

Conservative Home - July 8th 2008

As a political issue, biodiesel has oscillated sharply on the agenda between preference and pariah in the past few years. This fluctuation is interesting, not least in the context of David Cameron's emphasis on environmental protection. Whereas biofuels were once seen as a panacea for the world's unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels, they are now seen as a potential agent of expensive food at best and mass starvation at worst. Also, some experts have put forward claims that the cycle of biofuel production actually produces more carbon dioxide that it would save. Nothing could illustrate this to me more clearly than the deluge of emails I have received from environmental activists demanding that I do not vote to increase the EU's target for biodiesel as a proportion of road transport fuel, which is currently ten per cent by 2020. Interestingly the environment committee of the European Parliament has just passed an amendment reducing the target to four per cent.

The comments of my former MEP colleague and shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers were spot on in this respect. Clearly the government has been very slow to react to changing circumstances, and not for the first time. Undoubtedly the zealous pursuit of ambitious biodiesel targets has led to deforestation in sensitive ecological zones and may have caused a spike in food prices for consumers around the world, but most seriously in developing countries (however, in my personal view, increased consumption in the growing economies of China and India accounts for the bulk of the rise). It is for that reason that Conservative MEPs, led by our environment spokesman John Bowis, will be voting against the Commission package.

Having said all that, I do believe that there are compelling reasons why biofuels should be considered an important and permanent fixture in the UK's energy mix. The responsibility of politicians is to balance the various social, environmental and political factors to develop a sustainable policy: in other words, targets are of limited value and can often do more harm than good. Flexibility is the key. But chief among the reasons why we must not lose faith with biofuels altogether is their essential role in enhancing the energy security (especially the diversification of supply), and thus the foreign policy, of the UK.

Much of the oil and gas we consume comes from politically unstable and ideologically hostile regions and countries of the world: Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Nigeria and so on. I might even include Russia in that list for the simple reason of its proximity to the EU and its regular use of access to its hyrdocarbon supplies as a diplomatic weapon.

There is no doubt that the need for oil and gas is here to stay for quite some time yet - indeed, fossil fuels are more in demand than ever. But we should in the short term seek out alternative sources of oil and gas such as Kazakhstan (which is keen to draw itself closer to the West and away from Russia) and secondly we should ensure that biofuels, along with nuclear and renewables, can play their part in reducing and ultimately eliminating Britain's dependence on oil and gas from danger zones. Biofuels will hence also have a role in preserving oil supplies for future production of plastics, although they may also increasingly come to replace oil as the raw material for plastics.

These are difficult times for the world economy. Biodiesel production and refining must be adapted to the current circumstances. But this is a fledgling industry, which in Britain needs nurturing and may have been led on by the promises of politicians. In the long run biofuels can contribute to our country's future on several levels, not least in ushering Britain towards greater energy independence and, consequently, a more focused foreign policy.