Hailed as both climate saviour and food stock stealer biofuels are one of the most controversial technologies in the fight against greenhouse gases. Do our experts think they are the answer?
What idea policy or technology holds the greatest promise for tackling climate change? That was the question Channel 4 News posed to the scientific community over the past few weeks.
Thanks to the extensive contacts of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution Channel 4 News was able to email hundreds of scientists across various fields of expertise to sound-out their opinions.
Scientists across the world are currently researching biofuels which can produce green alternatives to fuels such as petroleum.
They are often seen as controversial as they use widely needed food stocks to be produced. In fact most of the scientists who contacted Channel 4 News said that biofuels would only work if they did not compete with global food supplies.
We certainly need to supplement mineral fuels with a diverse range of 3rd and 4th generation biofuels which do not compete with food crops. Prof Douglas Greenhalgh
Professor Douglas Greenhalgh from Heriot-Watt University said that although nuclear and hydrocarbons were “essential fuels” for the transportation and chemical industries biofuels had an important role to play.
“We certainly need to supplement mineral fuels with a diverse range of 3rd and 4th generation biofuels which do not compete with food crops,” he said.
Prof Theodosios Alexander from Queen Mary University of London agreed.
“Second and higher generation biofuels (not competing with the food supply) can provide the fuel needed for power-dense long-distance transportation needs that cannot be met with electric propulsion,” he said.
One industry which has been increasingly in the environmental spotlight is aviation. Across the globe people are being encouraged to fly less in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
But some believe that biofuels could provide green alternatives to plane fuel. Some biofuel makers claim they can cut aviation carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent. Several airlines have conducted biofuel flight tests over the past years. British Airways are now planning to conduct large-scale ground tests of a range of fuels from next year. It will buy up to 240 tonnes of four kinds of biofuels for its research.
BA is hoping the data generated by the tests should help speed the certification of the fuels for commercial use.
But the problems of production are still worrying some scientists. Prof Chris Thomas from the University of York sent us a co-authored report about the mitigation of climate change.
The report said: “Massive increases in biofuel production might increase competition for land, possibly displacing food production and increasing the destruction of natural habitats.”
However Prof Thomas told Channel 4 News that mitigation “could become one of the most important means of achieving global biodiversity conservation.”
“Tropical deforestation, devegetation elsewhere, and loss of soil carbon are thought to be responsible for at least 20 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions,” he said.
Massive increases in biofuel production might increase competition for land, possibly displacing food production and increasing the destruction of natural habitats. Prof Chris Thomas
“Their removal also takes away their ability to act as a “sink” for atmospheric carbon.
“Policies are required to ensure that most carbon remains where it is, in the world’s existing vegetation and soils, particularly concentrating on the conservation of global biodiversity hotspots; facilitating effective global conservation alongside a reduction in emissions.
“In most instances, this is far more effective than renewable biofuels, which increase global-scale pressures on land and are thereby liable to increase net emissions via food and fuel prices.”