Grasslands under UK biofuel footprint


The UK's use of soya and rapeseed based biofuel is increasing land use pressure on temperate grasslands including those of Argentina, a major supplier of UK biodiesel. Temperate grasslands are the world's least protected major habitat and are under severe pressure from increased global demand for food and biofuels. © Yves Bilat/

There is concern that the increasing use of biomass for biofuels will place yet another unwelcome pressure on global ecosystems. The use of Brazilian sugar and Asian palm oil has attracted attention to biofuels impacts in the tropical zone, particularly in tropical forests. A new JNCC report shows that the current UK biofuels consumption pattern, based on 90% imported fuels and a strong preference for biodiesel, is actually increasing pressures on temperate grasslands rather than tropical ecosystems.


As part of its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the UK government introduced the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) in 2008. The RTFO requires the partial replacement of diesel and petrol transport fossil fuels by their ‘biological’ equivalents, biodiesel and bioethanol. Approximately 3% of our land transport fuels currently come from these sources and if we are to meet EU targets this will need to rise to 13% by 2020.


Biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but their production can have other potentially negative environmental impacts. Biodiversity risks from biofuel production arise through land use change, pollution, excessive use of water, damage to soil functions and the use of invasive/GMO crops. JNCC has undertaken a strategic overview of where in the world, and in which biomes*, these impacts are currently occurring or may occur in the future. The UK monitors its own biofuels use through the renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) which requires suppliers of these fuels to report on the type of fuel, country of origin and the crops used to produce them. JNCC has combined RFA data with other information to make a quantitative assessment of the land required to produce the biofuels used by the UK under current and likely future biofuels consumption patterns.


The UK’s current biofuels consumption pattern, which favours biodiesel over bioethanol, results in a UK biofuels land use ‘footprint’ being felt primarily in temperate grasslands of both hemispheres. The significant use of soya-based biodiesel by the UK economy means much of this footprint falls on the temperate grasslands of the USA and Argentina. In the future, this footprint is likely to be extended to eastern European grasslands as the EU’s near neighbours produce and export more biofuels. The use of Brazilian ethanol and Asian palm oil has received prominent publicity, but the limited consumption by the UK of fuels from these sources actually results in a modest current land use impact on tropical grasslands and forests.


Temperate grasslands are one of the most endangered global ecosystems and according to the IUCN have the lowest level of protection (around 5.5%) of all the world's terrestrial biomes. Their high productivity makes these grasslands attractive for food and bioenergy crop production, but our understanding of their ecosystem value is comparatively poor. The major remaining grasslands of the world - the North American prairies, the pampas of South America, and the steppes of Eastern Europe – will come under increasing pressure as global demand for biofuels and food increases.


The current pattern of UK biofuels consumption is relatively easy to analyse. Over the coming decade, as demand increases and more countries establish themselves as suppliers to the UK biofuels market, this pattern will become more complex. JNCC will continue to use RFA and other data to monitor the changing nature and distribution of our global biofuels footprint, providing an annual update on how, why and where our biofuel consumption is affecting biodiversity.


*Large geographical areas of distinctive plant and animal groups


Tony Weighell

UK Global Impacts

Tel: +44 (0) 1733 866902