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Wednesday 16 April 2008
Why biofuels could actually mean more CO2 emissions
Sir: Your excellent article "The Burning Question" (15 April), on the adverse effect of first-generation biofuels, becomes even more compelling when recent quantitative information is considered.
In burning woodland to clear an area for biofuels, as your front-page photograph showed, typically about 100-200 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare are released into the atmosphere. The biofuel yield, conversely, is around four tonnes per hectare per year. If largely carbon, the combustion of this in a car engine would reduce net carbon dioxide emissions (versus fossil fuel usage) by about 15 tonnes.
But, biofuel has a lower carbon content than conventional fuel, and use of fertiliser, harvesting and distribution of biofuels reduces the overall annual benefit. Consequently, the "carbon payback time" may be many decades using these particular farming practices. Any targets for biofuel use set for 2020 is almost certainly going to increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere over the period to that date.
The way ahead is research into improving the yield of biofuels, better regulation and more effective government decision-making on land usage internationally, and more focus on other energy sources. The world also needs to prepare in the longer term for a chemicals industry fed by biomass, when hydrocarbons become scarce, and for which there will then be no other alternative.
Dr Richard Pike
Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry, London W1
Orcas are only one threat to seals
Sir: In his article about orcas catching seals in Scottish waters (14 April) Michael McCarthy is probably right to say that this natural predation is contributing to the dramatic decline is seal numbers over recent years. However, it is highly unlikely that orcas are responsible for the near 50 per cent reduction in seals in some areas.
About 20 years ago, while opposing the still regular calls from fishery interests for a massive cull of seals, I put forward the argument that seal numbers were recovering from extensive commercial exploitation by humans at the turn of the 19th-20th century and that, like any species apart from humans, when seals reached their optimum population, nature would take its course and numbers would peak, then fall back to naturally sustainable levels.
I believe this is what has been happening over the past ten years, and we have seen an increase in disease outbreaks in seal colonies and an increase in orcas coming inshore predating on seals. For several years tourists have been going to cliff-top look- out points to watch orcas taking seals on the Shetland shores.
However, it would be very foolish to accept that this is nature taking its course when there is still a great deal of human interference which threatens the whole marine ecosystem. Thousands of seals are legally shot by fishery and fish farming interests every year. Commercial trawlers continue to drive some species of fish to the verge of extinction. Salmon farmers turn around five tonnes of wild fish into food pellets to grow just one tonne of edible product. Global warming may be driving some fish stocks into different areas.
Although orcas are not very welcome for the individual seals that become their lunch, it is good to see them returning to our shores in increasing numbers. However we must continue to seek the facts as to why seal numbers have fallen so rapidly, as, if it is down to human overexploitation of our seas, it is no longer just the seals that are at risk but the orcas as well.
John F Robins
Save Our Seals Fund Dumbarton
Schools across the class divide
Sir: The problem with Johann Hari's suggestion to force schools in middle-class areas to accept their share of poor children (Opinion, 10 April) is that, at the same time, one has to force the parents of the displaced middle-class children to accept places in schools used to catering, until that moment, for predominantly poor children.
These schools will have the (often unfair) reputations that go with such an intake. There will be massive resistance, which will very soon show in the ballot-box, leading to a reversal of the policy and more upheaval for schools.
The only way to achieve this laudable aim to raise education standards for poor children is to make the schools in poor areas so attractive that middle-class parents will want to send their children there. Class sizes should be much smaller. The schools' teachers should be paid much better, leading quickly to better interview candidates. Other basic resources should be ploughed in.
The better test and exam results will soon follow, although the real benefits to society as a whole may take a generation to show through.
Sir: Johann Hari worries that the poorest pupils are concentrated in underperforming schools. There is no need for compulsory redistribution. If schools were offered more resources per head for pupils on free meals, free-market pressures would soon ensure that every school admitted an appropriate share.
No way to avoid the currency crunch
Sir: You are right to highlight the problems the currency crunch poses for people wanting to holiday in the eurozone (10 April). But they do have a choice – they can stay at home or go somewhere cheaper.
Spare a thought for Britons living here, often on retirement pensions that have been shrinking for more than six months now. I have lived happily in France for 18 years. I survived the crises that followed Black Wednesday in the early 1990s, but it is becoming less and less easy to cope with a situation that is not of my making and over which I have no control.
World population can be curbed
Sir: Nitin Mehta (Letters 11 April) draws attention to two major causes of the impending grain shortage, biofuels and meat-eating, but there is a third. He mentions a population increase to 9.5 billion in 2050, but this is not a given.
The UN has made three projections for that year, which are (high) 11 billion continuing to rise rapidly, (medium) 9.2 billion continuing to rise, and (low) 7.4 billion possibly peaking at that figure. Clearly the outcome must have a dramatic effect on our ability to feed ourselves. Population is currently growing at nearly a quarter of a million a day.
It should not be too difficult to do something about this. According to Marie Stopes, there are more than two million couples who would use family planning if they had access to it, there are only about five condoms per man each year in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are about 19 million unsafe abortions annually, giving rise to 68,000 maternal deaths and more than two million permanent disabilities. This suggests a large unfulfilled demand for family planning, which could be met inexpensively, given a little political will.
Ruling on military kit discredits Iraq 'war'
Sir: David Foster (letter, 15 April) is quite right to point out that no army can wait for every last scrap of equipment to be available before they fight a war. However, the judges who made the ruling about inadequate equipment are clearly under the impression that the Iraq war wasn't really a war.
If the Iraqi army was planning to march down Putney High Street and if the Iraqi navy was sitting off the coast of Kent pointing guns at Margate, then obviously the question of making sure that every soldier had the latest piece of military kit would be irrelevant. But this, of course wasn't the case. In fact, perhaps the judgement should have read: "In the event of invading and occupying a country which poses no immediate threat to the UK, ministers should, at least, make sure soldiers are properly equipped."
Lanesboro, Co Longford, Ireland
Minister ignorant of slaughter methods
Lord Rooker shows an ignorance of slaughter methods in general and in particular of Shechita, the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter, which is disappointing for the minister responsible for farming and animal welfare ("Halal and kosher meat should not be slipped in to food chain, says minister", 7 April).
His comments are at best confused and at worst show an extreme and worrying bias. Is Lord Rooker suggesting that meat from animals that have been gassed, electrocuted, mis-stunned, stabbed and shot should be so labeled or is he singling out humane religious slaughter?
It is quite irresponsible for a government minister to make such a statement without a full grasp of the facts.
Shechita UK, London NW1
India's problems are home grown
Sir: It is dismaying that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Opinion, 14 April) should appreciatively quote Arundhati Roy as her only source on the negative effects of market liberalisation on India's poor. Roy has been propagating her trendy anti-market gospel to sympathetic Western audiences for a decade now, but she is a polemicist who all too rarely has any logical or factual backing for her arguments.
India is far from being the foreign-capital-driven market economy that she describes and in fact, even after economic reforms, has by international standards a remarkably restrictive trade regime. Roy would have us believe that 17 years after the economic reforms of 1991, India is closer to the brink of disaster than ever – yet, as Alibhai-Brown notes, the size of the middle class has rapidly expanded.
Great challenges remain, and Alibhai-Brown is right to be concerned about the destructive effect or rising food prices. The problems stem, however, not from the "international capital" that Roy vaguely blames (one is reminded of early-20th century visions of a "cabal" of Jewish financiers running the world economy) but from the abdication of its duty by the political class.
The situation is not helped by dogmatic upper-class anti-market protesters who inevitably refrain from engagement with the facts and have no alternative solutions to advocate.
Just stare out of the window
Sir: Two articles from Wednesday's edition have much in common: "The myth of exotic holidays" and "The curse of satnav". Most of my travel is by train and unless I am preparing for a meeting or it is dark, I spend the time looking out of the window, fascinated by the continuous land- and town-scapes passing by. But most passengers are not true travellers and spend their time reading, playing cards or sleeping.
I was amazed the first time I travelled from Fort William to Mallaig (possibly Britain's most scenic rail journey) to find that there were coach parties on the train who were totally uninterested in what there was to see. I wondered why they had come on a holiday to Scotland.
You see this most markedly with children: a few will be fascinated by what there is to see, and will give a running commentary, but the majority are oblivious to the world outside the train. Obviously the same is true for those travelling by car. I find this sad, but rather than something to do with being British, it is probably average human behaviour.
Ian K Watson
Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith describes the "calamities" that have "been heaped on to the Government by the courts during the past few days" (Opinion, 14 April). The Government's "embarrassment" knew no end, apparently. But then he goes on to explain why nobody at all was embarrassed. Red-faced and shameful? Politicians? Contrite? We don't think so. What sort of a calamity is it that allows its victims to carry on as if nothing had happened?
Modesty at Hooters
Sir: It's a pity the Hooters dress code (report, 12 April) only applies to women staff at their restaurant chain. For myself, working in a busy call centre, I regularly avert my eyes from the under-30s. Bra straps deliberately showing, bare midriffs, low-cut trousers with flesh hanging over, tattoos and piercings are on daily display. As a 50-old I'm probably past the age that Hooters would employ, but theirs sounds quite a civilised dress code which, unlike at my place of work, is adhered to. Good luck, I say.
Mrs S Morgan
Newton Abbot, Devon
At least one swallow
Sir: Huw Rowlands' letter (14 April) notes the absence of swallows and cuckoos in Cheshire. I am happy to report that here in the balmy south, "our" swallows arrived back in the first week of April, to a rather chilly Wiltshire. Of cuckoos, alas, we have no sign yet.
West Lavington, Wiltshire
Sir: The swallows arrived here in Nottinghamshire on 10 April, just as they have done, give or take a day, every year for the last five years. My camelias are flowering a month late, though.
Sir: I think Dom Joly's antics in response to restrictions and shortcomings he dislikes make matters worse. Traffic wardens are there to try to prevent selfish twits cluttering the place up with their cars, and impeding the flow of important traffic such as ambulances, fire engines, buses and pedestrians. Likewise, reacting to poor service by attacking front-line staff is futile bullying. Complain at the top, and if dissatisfied use journalistic opportunities to expose them to ridicule and loss of office.
Lapse of taste
Sir: Robert Thornberry's letter on tasteless tomatoes (9 April) reminds me of an interview I saw on an Australian TV show. A horticulturalist was discussing a new breed of tomato that he had developed, which looked beautiful and had a great shelf life. "And how do they taste?" asked the interviewer. The interviewee just looked baffled, obviously wondering why this would be relevant.
Latham, Australian Capital Territory
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