'We shouldn't believe that biofuels are a silver bullet'

Julia King, charged with the review of low-carbon cars, talks to John Gill about energy efficiency

May 8, 2008

As world food prices soar to the highest levels since the Second World War, the finger is being pointed, at least in part, at Western demand for biofuels.

Some of the world's poorest people have been left in crisis by recent shortages, as increasing demand for crops such as corn, sugar cane and soy to make bioethanol and diesel has driven up the cost of putting food on the table.

Alongside the food-versus-fuel debate there are also fears that these pressures will impact on biodiversity and may even prompt poor countries to clear rainforest to produce such valuable crops.

Last month Gordon Brown promised to examine the impact of biofuels, noting that world food prices were at their highest level since 1945.

However, Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University and author of the recent King Review of low-carbon cars, believes that the biofuel factor is being overplayed.

"I'm not sure how much of the food-supply problem is really to do with biofuels. That's the hook it has got attached to, but I think it has been overstated. I'm sure it has some impact, but the food situation has other causes as well," she said.

Despite her doubts, Professor King's attitude towards biofuels is one of cautious interest rather than out-and-out enthusiasm.

Her review was split into two parts. The first, released last autumn, looked at the potential for reducing CO2 emissions from cars, and the second recommended actions and policy.

"On biofuels the message was one of 'proceed, but very cautiously'," she said.

"It is going to be an important industry, but there has been a lot of focus on it in Europe before we've got robust sustainability safeguards to ensure we're getting good biofuels.

"There is a huge range of CO2 benefit and, depending how you account for indirect effects such as land-use change, possibly even a CO2 deficit from some biofuels.

"Until we know where bio-ethanol has come from and whether the country of origin has been ploughing up grassland or, worse still, removing rainforest to plant, it's rather dangerous to expand demand."

Suggesting that the UK and Europe should take a gradual approach, Professor King said a target of 2.5 per cent biofuel was a good first step.

"We shouldn't believe that biofuels are a silver bullet. We should assume they will provide a modest proportion of the UK's fuel," she said.

Professor King's credentials for heading the review stretch across both academia and industry.

She read material science as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and stayed on as a research fellow before lecturing at the University of Nottingham.

Returning to Cambridge as the first Royal Academy of Engineering senior research fellow, she then moved into industry, joining Rolls-Royce as head of materials.

She rose through the company, becoming director of advanced engineering for industrial business among other posts, and after eight years moved back into academia, becoming vice-chancellor of Aston University in 2006.

The King Review is one of a rash of vice-chancellor-led studies commissioned by the Government that have examined some of the key issues of our time, and Professor King said she believed it was an important part of the role, despite the extra burden.

"Perhaps Gordon Brown doesn't think we're working hard enough," she joked.

"It's quite tough and I had a very good team working with me on the review, but there are a lot of people to meet and there is a lot of reading to do - you wouldn't want to do reviews back to back.

"At the end of the day vice-chancellors are paid by the state, by people's taxes, and I do think that we have a public service duty.

"Universities are very good at evidence, and evidence-based policy is clearly something to be encouraged."

She also acknowledged the pressure that undertaking such a review could put on a vice-chancellor's executive team at their own institution and said it was important to have deputies that could be trusted to get on with the job.

Returning to CO2 emissions, she said that the cars on UK roads "could be a lot better", which she said was cause for optimism.

"There's an awful lot of technology for conventional vehicle systems that could reduce CO2 emissions by 30 per cent - that is technology that's on the shelf already," she said.

"The week after the budget there was a What Car? online survey that asked people if they would now consider buying a greener car. Nineteen per cent said they would buy one for environmental reasons, and 47 per cent said they would buy one because it would be cheaper.

"I suppose I was slightly disappointed that only 19 per cent of us would do it for environmental reasons, but on the other hand encouraged that now 66 per cent would choose a greener vehicle the next time they bought one.

"That is a step in the right direction, even if we had to get people there by making it more expensive to go for any other option."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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