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Robert Largan: We must cut our use of biofuels to tackle rocketing global food prices

Robert Largan: We must cut our use of biofuels to tackle rocketing global food prices
5 min read

The United Kingdom continued to lead the global response to Russia’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine at the G7 summit last week.

This included a credible UK plan to alleviate rocketing global food prices by repurposing land currently used to grow crops for cars to produce food for people. While an agreement among G7 leaders proved elusive, outside of the EU we have the freedom to reduce our consumption of energy crops independently. This would boost food supplies and reduce costs for motorists, and could be combined with a faster uptake of greener electric vehicles to cut carbon emissions and reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Ukraine’s grain exports feed around 125 million people across the world. Russia is blockading Ukrainian ports, meaning millions of tonnes of grain are stuck in the country and global food prices are rising. This puts the world’s poorest people at risk of starvation.

Reformulating unleaded petrol to contain less biofuel could cut prices at the pump

Rules on green transport fuels mean a tenth of the petrol sold at UK forecourts is bioethanol - known as E10. Bioethanol is produced from plants and is used as an alternative to petrol. Some crops like wheat, corn and sugar beet, grown at home or imported from abroad, are used to produce the fuel. 

The ethanol content in petrol was doubled by the government last year to reduce vehicle emissions, at a projected cost to consumers of £23 billion over the next decade. 

The land required to meet the UK’s bioethanol demand could be used to grow human crops and feed around 3.5 million people a year – offsetting at least a quarter of the increase in undernourishment anticipated as a result of the war in Ukraine.

This could also help to boost domestic food production. While most of our biofuel demand is met through imports, just under 36 thousand hectares of UK crops were converted to biofuels for the UK’s road vehicles in 2020. This could be used to grow food instead. 

While the wheat currently used for fuel is of low-grade and not fit for human consumption, if the government were to lift the E10 requirement then those farmers would likely choose to plant edible crops next year. 

Reformulating unleaded petrol to contain less biofuel could cut prices at the pump too. Bioethanol accounts for almost 13 pence per litre of petrol, and the cost has risen with grain prices. What’s more, ethanol is less efficient than regular unleaded petrol, so drivers using E10 may need to fill up their tank more frequently. 

But the government is right to insist that any change in policy must not undermine our route to net zero emissions by 2050. The global disruption to food supplies at the moment is also being driven by more extreme weather, such as the recent heat wave in India that damaged their wheat crop and led to the imposition of export controls. So, we must continue to tackle climate change in our response to the immediate challenges of high food and energy costs. 

The climate benefits of using crop-based biofuels are limited or potentially negative in some cases because they displace food production and drive land use change such as deforestation. But any additional emissions from weakening the biofuel requirement for petrol cars must be offset by faster uptake of electric vehicles. 

This is now possible because electric vehicles are more cost effective than when biofuel targets were first introduced by the EU. The uptake of electric vehicles is outstripping the government’s projections, meaning the proposed targets for vehicle manufacturers requiring a given percentage of their new car and van sales to be zero emission each year from 2024, known as the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate, is now too weak. 

So alongside ditching E10 fuel, the government should come forward with more ambitious targets for industry to sell zero emission vehicles in the next five years, so that its policy accelerates the uptake of electric vehicles. The rules requiring the use of renewable transport fuels would clearly need to remain in place for sectors such as aviation and shipping where electrification is less viable.

Strengthening the requirement to sell an ever-increasing number of zero emission vehicles that can be powered by domestic renewable energy sources would boost our energy security too. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that our reliance on fossil fuels makes the UK susceptible to disruption to global fuel supply and leaves us at the mercy of Vladimir Putin. Electric vehicles will protect motorists from volatile fuel prices and will weaken Putin’s grip on our energy and fuel markets.

While the upfront cost of electric vehicles remains higher than petrol and diesel cars, it is falling, the supply of cheaper second-hand EVs is growing and they are cheaper to run. And to avoid the UK becoming dependent on overseas powers for EVs, the government is also developing a strategy to ensure we have a secure and sustainable supply of the critical minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are required to produce batteries. 

As the trade-offs for food security and fuel prices become increasingly acute, the case for batteries over biofuels has become ever more compelling. With zero emission cars becoming cheaper, electrification now provides a cost-effective route to meeting our climate goals. By suspending the requirement on E10 fuel and setting more ambitious targets for electric vehicles, we can improve global food security, reduce consumer costs and defund Putin’s war machine.

 

Robert Largan is the Conservative MP for High Peak.

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