Biofuels have a limited ability to replace fossil fuels and should not be regarded as a “silver bullet” solution to reducing transport emissions, British scientists have warned.

The report by Britain’s Royal Society warned that biofuels risk failing to deliver significant reductions in transport emissions and could even be environmentally damaging unless the government implements the right policies.

The Royal Society said that given biofuels were already in the market, it was “vital that policies that promote biofuel development also address the environmental, economic and social impacts.”

“Changes in land use, such as clearing tropical forests or using peatlands for cultivation of crops, risk releasing enough greenhouse gases to negate any of the intended future climate benefits, as well as having major impacts on conservation of biodiverse habitats,” the report said.

The authors also warned that any major switch to biofuels from food crops would create a direct competition with their use for food and animal feed. “In some parts of the world we are already seeing the economic consequences of such competition,” it said.

“Unless biofuel development is supported by appropriate policies and economic instruments that address these issues, then there is a risk that we may become locked into inefficient – and potentially environmentally harmful – biofuels supply chains and the benefits of alternatives based on new technologies still under development may be lost,” the report warned.

No wonder yesterday, the European commission’s environment minister, Stavros Dimas, said the EU would re-examine its policy on biofuels after admitting that the environmental and social impact of producing the crops may be greater than originally thought.