Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Biological Sciences


Transportation is the single largest energy user in the UK (39% of all energy used), and almost all of energy used for transportation (97%) currently comes from oil. At present, most of this oil (about 80%) comes from UK and Norwegian oil fields in the North Sea, while the rest comes from oil fields in Russia, the Middle East and Africa. However, the North Sea oil fields are slowly becoming less productive, so the UK will increasingly need to import its oil from elsewhere. In addition, our future transportation fuel needs will increasingly be met by renewable biofuels (e.g. ethanol or biodiesel which can be produced from crops such as maize and palm oil) to help the UK meet its ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these biofuels are also grown outside of the UK.

While biofuels are meant to be a green alternative to burning oil, several recent scientific studies have shown that the environmental friendliness of biofuels very much depends on what crops are used to produce them, and where these crops are grown. Several EU legislations are in place to ensure that these future supplies of biofuels are produced in a sustainable manner and not grown on primary forest or land with high biodiversity value, particularly grassland; however, considerably more research is needed in this field.

The goal of this project is to develop a new methodology that will allow the UK to compare the impacts on ecosystem services - the benefits that humans obtain from nature - of producing different types of biofuels or producing oil in different parts of the world. In this project, we will first map the 'footprint' (the area covered) by the infrastructure needed to produce oil (e.g. pipelines, wells) and the areas that are currently used to grow crops for biofuels (i.e. maize, oil palm, and oilseed rape). We will then look at how what ecosystem services (i.e. timber, fish, drinking water) have been lost as a result of producing these different fuels in different parts of the world. We will also do detailed studies of specific oil production sites and a major oil palm plantation in Malaysia to see how other elements of fuel production (i.e. refining, shipping, harvesting biofuel crops) affect ecosystem services - such analyses are known as life cycle analyses. In addition, we will produce maps of ecosystem services most at risk from oil spills, and do a number of analyses to see how much the quality of the data used in our analyses will affect our findings.

This project will help society understand how our lifestyle, in particular the use of liquid transport fuels, in the UK affects ecosystems globally, and, through increasing our understanding, it will permit us to outline options that minimize our impacts on the environment. Our project is a collaborative effort between ecologists and experts in oil and biofuel production. We have strong links with government, major conservation organizations (e.g. the United Nations Environment Programme), and the UK's major oil producers (BP and Shell) to ensure both that we are asking the right questions, and to help us to quickly publicize our findings.

Planned Impact

The impact of this work will be to contribute to the on-going efforts to reduce the environmental costs of energy supply. This project's specific impact will be to provide a methodology for examining how energy used in the UK -with transport fuels as an exemplar - affects global ecosystem services - the benefits humans gain from nature -and, thereby enabling governments and energy companies to obtain energy supplies from regions with the least impact on ecosystem services. A major contribution of the project will be a) a preliminary global assessment of the relative ecosystem service impacts of transport fuels production from different parts of the world; combined with b) a robust quantitative assessment of the levels of uncertainty associated with such analyses. Thus our research, in providing a methodological approach, will be of wide-ranging value to policy developments in DECC (Bioenergy, Transition to a low carbon economy, IPCC negotiations), DEFRA (Equitable use of land), DFiD (International Development and poverty alleviation) and DfT (Biofuels directive, Transport fuel policies). In addition to this, work of the Committee for Climate Change (CCC), will also benefit from our work, in enabling global ecosystem impacts of contrasting future energy scenarios to be considered. More immediately our research will feed into the Bioenergy reviews underway at CCC and DECC/DEFRA.

As stated, the primary beneficiaries will be the UK. However, major international energy companies (e.g. BP, Shell) who recognise they must produce energy in the most socially responsible manner possible, and that pressures on natural ecosystems are increasing, will also benefit. A number of globally-focussed NGOs and organisations committed to a sustainable future and funded through nation subscription or membership fees will also benefit from our research. These include Conservation International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), FAO, UNEP, and IEA, who will be able to use our framework to identify potential future conflicts between conservation and energy production.

This project will achieve its impact objectives due to the very strong existing links with government, industry and global NGOs of the three organizations involved in this proposal. For example, within our partnership, UNEP-WCMC(United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Centre) is part of the Proteus Partnership (http://www.proteuspartners.org/about-3) enabling the exchange of datasets on global ecosystems with industry, for informed decision- making. Industry partners include Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Statoil, all central to developing impact from our research here and providing a partnership that we can exploit. Dr Ann Muggeridge is an enhanced Oil Recovery specialist who has spent much of her career with BP, most recently as the first BP Technology Fellow, providing strong links into the BP. On sustainable biofuels, UNEP-WCMC also contribute to the GBEP (Global Bioenergy Partnership). Dr Rob Ewers is the Science Director for the SAFE project, Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (http://www.safeproject.net/), one of the world's largest ecological experiments on tropical rainforests, including areas being used for oil palm plantation, providing partnership to palm oil growers, as part of the large-scale experimental examination of the effects of tropical forest loss and fragmentation he leads. We also have outstanding links with the UK energy research community , particularly through Ann Muggeridge's links with BP, and Shell, and Gail Taylor's background in bioenergy research, including access to on-going bioenergy projects. These include expertise in LCA, mapping biomass supply and ecosystems services in a UK context and in understanding wide sustainability issues in relation to bioenergy deployment.


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