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Biofuels production could harm people and crops, researchers say

Picture of poplar trees by Dave Bushell for Your Expert Witness storyThe large-scale production of biofuels in Europe could result in increased human mortality and crop losses, according to research by experts at Lancaster University's Environment Centre. The study, Impacts of biofuel cultivation on mortality and crop yields, was carried out by Prof Nick Hewitt, Dr Oliver Wild and former PhD student Kirsti Ashworth and has been published online in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Biofuels are usually derived from specialist crops such as poplar, willow or eucalyptus and constitute one of the alternative energy sources being advocated as more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. However, many plant species grown for biofuel emit more isoprene – an ozone precursor – than the traditional crops they replace. Isoprene then takes part in chemical reactions in the lower atmosphere that lead to the formation of ozone.

The modelling case study estimated the increase in ground level ozone pollution likely to result from a change to biofuel crops and the associated impacts on human health and agricultural production. The model involved the conversion of enough land area in Europe to meet the EU's 2020 goal for biofuel production to short rotation coppice crops and estimated the effects on human mortality and crop productivity.

Said Prof Hewitt: "Growing biofuels is thought to be a good thing because it reduces the net amount of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, but biofuels could also have a detrimental effect on air quality. Large-scale production of biofuels in Europe would have small but significant effects on human mortality and crop yields."

He later explained, in an interview with the public sector newsletter Science Omega, how ground-level ozone affects people and plants.

"It causes damage both to plants and to the human respiratory system. Essentially, ozone reduces the productivity of crops and is potentially fatal in humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 22,000 Europeans die every year because of ozone pollution."

Asked whether that meant biofuel are not a viable energy solution, he replied: "We are not saying that at all. We are simply pointing out that, when assessing biofuel cultivation, policymakers must account for detrimental effects to air quality as well as for climate-related benefits. Whether or not [large-scale biofuel production] is viable is a political decision."

He went on to explain that there are ways of ameliorating those effects, including planting the trees in areas with low levels of the oxides of nitrogen. Another, which is already in development in Germany, is to genetically engineer trees that don't produce isoprene.

Picture of poplar trees © Dave Bushell, from Geograph

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 14:55

Defra awards £2m for tackling air pollution

Picture of a foggy road for Your Expert Witness story, courtesy of has announced the award of £2m of air quality grants to 36 local authorities across England. The grants, which have been awarded to those authorities who have demonstrated "innovative plans to tackle air pollution in our towns and cities", will fund 42 projects all over the country.

In particular, funding has been provided to support the investigation of Low Emission Zones, and to help create guidance and tools for local authorities who want to decrease emissions. Money has also been given to authorities who want to develop the way they communicate the message about air quality to their local communities.

Last Updated on Monday, 31 December 2012 18:48


Doha outcome given lukewarm welcome

Doha conference on climate change for Your Expert Witness storyThe Doha conference on climate change ended with an extension of the Kyoto Treaty and a commitment, for the first time, from developed countries to assist developing countries with aid to deal with the consequences of climate change: so-called 'damage aid'.

"Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said: "This round of international climate change talks was a modest step forward. We always knew they would be very tough after the breakthrough at the same conference in Durban last year.

"We can be pleased that we have maintained the momentum towards a new legally binding agreement for 2020 after the Kyoto Protocol has expired. However, we still need countries to do more and be more ambitious about reducing their emissions if we are going to avoid irreversible climate change and prevent devastating global warming.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 December 2012 16:36


Davey announces long-awaited energy agreement

Picture of Edward Davey for your Expert Witness storyOn 23 November the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published its proposals for the long-delayed Energy Bill. The bill was dogged by arguments between the DECC and the Treasury. Secretary of State Ed Davey called the bill "a landmark agreement on energy policy that will deliver a clear, durable signal to investors".

Mr Davey said in a statement: "This is a durable agreement across the coalition against which companies can invest and support jobs and our economic recovery. The decisions we've reached are true to the coalition agreement; they mean we can introduce the Energy Bill next week and have essential electricity market reforms up and running by 2014 as planned.

"They will allow us to meet our legally binding carbon reduction and renewable energy obligations and will bring on the investment required to keep the lights on and bills affordable for consumers."

Last Updated on Friday, 23 November 2012 18:33


Carbon capture competition: shortlist announced

Picture of Drax for Your Expert Witness storyFour bidders have been shortlisted for the next phase of the UK's £1bn carbon capture and storage (CCS) competition. The four were selected from eight bids received after an evaluation process that considered project deliverability, value for money and the Government's timetable to deliver a cost-competitive CCS industry in the 2020s.

The four short listed bids – all full-chain capture, transport and storage projects – are:
• Captain Clean Energy Project, a proposal for a 570MW project in Grangemouth, Scotland, with storage in offshore depleted gas fields. It is led by Summit Power, involving Petrofac (CO2 Deepstore), National Grid and Siemens.
• Peterhead, a 340MW post-combustion capture retrofitted to part of an existing 1,180MW power station at Peterhead, Scotland. It is led by Shell and SSE.
• Teesside Low Carbon Project, a pre-combustion coal gasification project on Teesside, with storage in depleted oil field and saline aquifer. It is a consortium led by Progressive Energy and involving GDF SUEZ, Premier Oil, and BOC.
• White Rose Project, an oxyfuel capture project at a proposed new 304MW coal-fired power station on the Drax site in North Yorkshire. It is led by Alstom and involves Drax, BOC and National Grid.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 October 2012 18:47