Letters: Biofuel debate

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Harness the tides and the sun - and just use less energy

Sir: Some 20 years ago, I was one of a group of scientists gathered together by the Department of Energy (as was) to advise government on alternative energy sources.

Biomass, and in particular bioethanol (because of the additional energy cost of distillation) was held to be the least desirable, only marginally better than nuclear. Conservation was first on our list of desirability, not only because of Denis Healey's sage advice that if you find yourself in a hole it's a good idea to stop digging, but because of its huge potential magnitude, its immediacy and its relative cheapness. The Severn Barrage, already then the subject of cost and feasibility studies, was a favourite and had been calculated to be capable of generating as much electricity as does nuclear at this moment. Naturally, our recommendations were disregarded.

Your article of 5 March listed many of the reasons why bioethanol is not a good idea. You could have added the fact that bioethanol must conform to the laws of thermodynamics.

Sugar cane is as good a crop as you can get for the photosynthetic transduction of light energy into chemical energy (about 1 per cent on an annual basis). Subtract the energy costs of converting sugar cane to ethanol and what is left by way of energy gained? Conversely, photovoltaic electricity generation could manage as much as 10 per cent and, given the fact that we receive about 100 W/square metre of solar energy (averaged over 365 days a year) it could surely be counted upon to offset a great deal more importation of oil or gas than would bioethanol.

DAVID ALAN WALKER FRS

EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS, UNIVERSITY OF SHEFFIELD

Hi-tech crops will not be ready in time

Sir: How can Professor Hayes (letter, 6 March) paint such a rosy picture of second generation biofuels (2G-BFs) when he knows that it takes many years from Nature papers to viable commercial production? This is time that we do not have when the Stern report indicates that we must reduce carbon emissions significantly in the next 10 years. Whilst he debates what Amazonian land-conversion might be less damaging, he misses the bigger picture - scientists are warning that deforestation may have pushed the Amazon close to a threshold beyond which a vicious cycle of mega-fires and desertification is unstoppable

Not all scientists accept that 2G-BFs will be more energy efficient than current, inefficient ethanol production methods. 2G-BF processing involves breaking down lignin, the plant's cellular armour, and cellulose, complex molecular chains. Both these steps require extra energy inputs compared to converting sugar to ethanol.

For this reason, 2G-BFs will require unproven genetic engineering technology, both in the crops themselves and this processing. The biotech industry hopes that consumers will accept GE food and feed crops, when and if GE is used for biofuels. However, it is unlikely that consumers, particularly in Europe, will accept the wide risks associated with GE technology and the potential threat of contamination to food crops and biodiversity.

EU heads of state are this week deciding whether to impose mandatory targets for biofuels. The exploitation of Brazilian resources for US ethanol, exposed in your front page, is mirrored for the EU with South-east Asian resources for palm oil biodiesel. In fact, the proposed EU biofuel target of 10 per cent by 2020, a tenfold increase on the current 1 per cent penetration, is more aggressive than Bush's five-fold increase.

It is unacceptable for the EU heads of state to set a mandatory target, given the problems with rainforest destruction, exposed by your article, for current ethanol production, and that 2G-BFs cannot deliver the transport emission savings needed to prevent catastrophic climate change soon enough.

DR ANDREW BOSWELL

NORWICH, CHESHIRE ALMUTH ERNSTING ABERDEEN

Global warming, the new slavery

Sir: As we approach the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, people should ask themselves if humanity is any more civilised than those who fought to retain that vile, barbaric practice.

Two centuries ago many politicians argued that slavery permitted the creation of great wealth, and was vital to the UK economy. Just the same arguments that are used today to justify the refusal to ban polluting practices like aviation, and the burning of fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage.

No matter that hundreds of millions of people may die, due to the imminent climate catastrophe, our politicians put the needs of the economy a long way ahead of any respect for human life.

JON FULLER

WESTCLIFF ON SEA, ESSEX

Planet sacrificed to economic growth

Sir: You are quite right to highlight the debate on the wisdom of rapid growth in biofuel production. At the heart of the "the big green fuel lie" is the "the big economic growth lie".

There's more than one way to reduce petroleum use by 20 per cent in ten years. Option 1: reduce speed limits, improve vehicle efficiency and increase fuel duty. This saves at least 20 per cent of fuel but, dear oh dear, it doesn't grow the economy much at all, maybe even shrinks it. Option 2: convert food into "green fuel" resulting in increased food

prices, fuel prices and land prices. This hardly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but no worries, the economy keeps growing very nicely, thank you.

So that is the choice: business as usual or saving the planet. It's obvious; even George Bush knows it's not a real choice. We simply have to cut down the last rainforests and grow more oil otherwise the economy will be wrecked and then we'll really be in a terrible mess, won't we?

DAVE COCKCROFT

STROUD, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Fuel farming has a part to play

Sir: It is disappointing to see such negative opinion expressed over the developing biofuels market ("The big green fuel lie", 5 March). I fully agree that a shift from fossil fuel to ethanol will not save the planet alone. Biofuels do, however, have an important role to play in the development of the package of renewable, sustainable energy solutions required to help tackle climate change.

Production of biofuels from current agricultural crops offers a realistic and practical solution to reduce carbon emissions in the transport fuels sector, a sector in which carbon emissions continue to rise.

Clearly the energy efficiency of biofuels is variable and sustainability of certain systems are of concern. This is why the National Farmers Union is so supportive of the carbon and sustainability reporting system under development with the UK Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). This reporting system will show which biofuels are the most energy efficient.

Energy efficient biofuels can be produced in sustainable farming systems today and we need to support the development of such renewable technology. It gives the ability to significantly reduce carbon emissions using current spare agricultural land capacity, which is in set-aside at present.

MEURIG RAYMOND

DEPUTY PRESIDENT NATIONAL FARMERS UNION STONELEIGH PARK, WARWICKSHIRE

Sir: Congratulations on your front page feature "The big green fuel lie". A vital aspect of this debate currently being overlooked is "energy returned on energy invested".

While tropical crops such as sugar cane and palm oil create massive social and environmental problems, they do produce a significant net energy gain. But when more northern countries such as the US and Europe, which have less sunshine and shorter growing seasons, try to do the same with wheat and maize they typically will have to use three units of fossil fuel inputs for every four units of biofuel output.

It therefore makes more sense to use our farmland to grow our own food than to produce biofuel inefficiently. Your leading article is absolutely right: biofuels are a pointless diversion from the urgent need drastically to cut our energy consumption.

AIDAN HARRISON

ROTHBURY, NORTHUMBERLAND

Who profits from 'the great swindle'?

Sir: A major problem with the old environmentalism-as-reactionary-imperialism argument that Dominic Lawson endorses (2 March) is that it fails to explain who materially benefits from the "great global warming swindle" aside from some supposedly dishonest scientists.

Perhaps Martin Durkin's new film will seek to address this, but it's difficult to imagine why governments would keep paying scientists year after year to give them advice that, year after year, they fail to follow. On the other hand, it is very easy to see why corporations selling oil and cars, and media corporations that sell advertising for oil and cars, would be willing to pay scientists to counter such advice.

Scientists who dispute the effects of human action on climate also find a ready audience with consumers who are eager to justify their own complacency.

JOHN HINDLEY

LONDON N2

Sir: The dislike of Dominic Lawson and Martin Durkin for people who try to conserve the environment fits oddly with a concern for the poor in Africa. Conservation benefits people as much as wildlife; both are threatened by climate change. Conservation of forests, particularly those on watersheds, along with the maintenance of clean water and fish stocks, is essential for us all.

Particularly this applies to Africa and other impoverished parts of the world; probably the most helpful thing we can do for the poor of Africa is to prevent climate change from making farming virtually impossible in much of the continent.

NORMAN MOORE

SWAVESEY, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

Sir: There are five stages in climate change denial: 1. It's not happening; 2. It might be happening but there's no proof, so we needn't do anything about it; 3. Well, OK, maybe it is happening but if so it's nothing to do with us; 4. Yes, it really is happening, but it's much too late to do anything about it and anyway, nothing you do personally will make any difference; 5. It's hurting! It's the fault of the Chinese! Stop them!

Dominic Lawson is still at stage 3. Most of the other deniers have moved on to stage 4. Stage 5 will follow the US-Iranian war.

STEPHEN LOWE-WATSON

LEWES, EAST SUSSEX

Self-knowledge

Sir: I was struck by a major revelation while reading Deborah Orr's column (3 March). Over the years, many have commented that I had above-average intelligence, and the potential to go far. Alas I now know this not to be the case, for I happen to watch both 24 and Lost, and therefore I'm obviously an idiot. Oh well, there go my hopes.

JAMIE RUSH

STOCKPORT, GREATER MANCHESTER

Family values

Sir: Perhaps David Cameron has hit upon a winning streak in the family. Family firms in the EU make-up 60-90 per cent of businesses, depending on the country, and they account for two-thirds of GNP and jobs. So if we combine the family-centred social, welfare, and education policies with one for enterprise, he has a truly unified set of policies around the family. We should also note that family-owned firms tend to outpace the average managerial (non-family) competitors.

MICHAEL CROSS

RICHMOND, SURREY

Brave church schools

Sir: Michael K Baldwin praises church schools for selecting pupils by ability (letter, 28 February), saying, "Thank God someone has the guts to do it." I am a retired headteacher and have had the privilege to work closely with many church schools during my career. They have, without exception, been open to all children regardless of ability and have provided an excellent education for all their pupils. Thank God they have the guts to do it.

SHAUN PYE

LEEDS

Beat the banks

Sir: I would like to propose a different way of avoiding bank charges: hold your accounts at a building society. I bank with one of the few remaining building societies. This institution is not profit making, and therefore does not look for ways to penalise its customers. Instead, it tries to find ways to benefit them. Consequently, I can transfer money online instantly between my accounts, or between my account and someone else's without charge or delay. Furthermore, I can use any cash machine either at home or abroad without incurring a fee

JUSTIN BRODIE

CHESTER

Must-have bag

Sir: Well I never! We're ahead of fashion by a mile ("Could this bag really save the world?", 6 March). I have been using, daily, the Women's Institute's cloth bag for some three years now. It is half the price of Anya Hindmarch's, with the added advantages that it can be washed and folded small enough to go into a medium-sized handbag - so you can always have it with you and be annoyingly superior when saying "I don't do plastic bags."

ANNE WOOSTER

LITTLE GADDESDEN HERTFORDSHIRE

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