The following letter and reply was published in this month's Chemistry World. The text in the [brackets] was edited out, but is of course the crux of the matter.
From Chris Rhodes.
The RSC Policy Bulletin article entitled Growing energy (Issue 4, autumn 2006, p5) notes the commitment to biofuels by the US and UK.
To replace even 5 per cent of the fuel consumed annually in the UK with bioethanol would require turning over around 6300 square kilometres of arable land for the purpose, or 10 per cent of the total arable area of the UK, which would conflict with food production.
The article talks about converting waste products from existing agriculture to ethanol, for example wheat straw. This sounds like a perfect solution. In fact, it would at best provide the equivalent of just 6.5 per cent of the total fuel currently used. At first sight, the figure seems rather feeble, and so it is. There is no way we can produce enough ethanol to match our current level of fuel use, either using biomass waste or without compromising food production. On the other hand, if we move to systems of energy efficiency: living in localised communities, which would cut fuel demand by 90 per cent, then 6.5 per cent of that remaining 10 per cent begins to look significant.
[Otherwise we can neither break our dependency on imported fuels nor meet the government's targets to reduce CO2 emissions].
I am reassured that survival is possible for the UK in terms of intrinsic fuel supplies, but only given a paradigm shift in the way we live our lives.
Details of calculations on energy provision can be found on the Energy Balance website.
C Rhodes CChem FRSC
Jeff Hardy, Environment, energy & sustainability forum, RSC, replies:
The RSC agrees that energy efficiency is critical in enabling the UK to meet carbon emission reduction targets and to cut fuel demand. This was one of several key messages in the RSC response to the DTI energy review.
However, if the UK is to meet the imminent targets of the renewable transport fuel obligation (5.75 per cent by 2010 and perhaps 10 per cent by 2015) without significant imports of biofuels and with minimum competition for arable land then biofuels must be produced from agricultural and forestry waste. Significant research challenges remain before biofuels from this route are economically competitive.