Posts Tagged ‘Global Warming’

There is now less than a month until the United States will elect their next President. In the past 8 years President Bush has gone out of his way to reject, suppress, and generally ignore action on climate change issues. During Bush’s years in office however, climate change has slowly risen on the national and international agenda, which has to be a good thing.

Everyone has already forgotten about Bush, and he has long since stopped pretending to be worried about climate change, saying ‘Goodbye from the worlds biggest polluter’ to the other G8 leaders back in July, with a nice big grin on his face.

Much is often made of the perceived necessity for the US to take a lead by example on climate change, and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. This is a view often emphasised by Americans themselves (see Jonathon Porritt’s recent review of Thomas L. Friedman’s new book) but as the world collectively realises what we may be facing, leadership from the United States becomes less and less relevant. The scenes in Bali last December may have been a wake-up call to this effect, as US representatives were told to ‘…..get out of the way’ of new international negotiations, to cheers from representatives from the majority of nations present.

However, the position of the US is undoubtedly important, if not in persuading other nations to act, then purely in terms of reducing their own contribution to global warming as one of the worlds largest polluters. With this in mind, anyone who realises the importance of minimising climate change will be carefully examining the environmental ideals of both Presidential candidates.

Realclimate recently examined what the vice-presidential candidates said in their televised debate about climate change (see here), with fairly predictable results. Of the two candidates, the Republican John McCain is, unsurprisingly, the one who’s less bothered about climate change. His running mate Sarah Palin has repeatedly stated that she isn’t sure that climate change is being caused by humans, but she doesn’t think the cause is important – the response to it is the important bit. As Realclimate (and countless others) point out – the cause is VERY important if you want to know how to tackle the problem.

McCain favours a cap and trade system, and wants to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050, but isn’t going to force small businesses to be included in this. Tellingly, McCain’s page of plans for global warming finish with an emphasis on ‘adaptation’. He’s going to need a much larger section on that bit if he gets elected.

In comparison, Barack Obama seems to be a long way ahead, at least in terms of rhetoric. According to his website, Barack Obama ‘supports implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.’. However, his running mate, Joe Biden, recently highlighted their belief in ‘clean coal’ technology and the role it can play in their carbon reduction plans – a technology that is untested and extremely unlikely to deliver ‘clean’ energy generation. The general picture that the Democrats have been painting is one that says “We know we need to have at least an 80% reduction by 2050, but there’s no way we’ll get elected if we spell out what that means in terms of changes within the country.” It could also be interpreted as “We need an 80% reduction by 2050. Help! How the hell do we do that!”.

It goes without saying that whoever gets elected will be judged on what they actually deliver and not what they have pledged to do. Unfortunately, only the most optimistic observers will be expecting the new president to begin the groundbreaking green revolution now required to restrain global warming below catastrophic levels.

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This coming week, a few thousand people will be setting up the third annual Climate Camp, at Kingsnorth in Kent, to protest against the building of a new coal-fired power station in the near future.

The Climate Camp has already been set up in a field near Kingsnorth power station, and will be there all week, culminating in a day of direct action attempting to prevent the power station from functioning on the Saturday. The direct action will be what hits the headlines, for obvious reasons. You can expect lots of pictures of people with dreadlocks and angel-wings being dragged around by police in the papers on Sunday morning.

You can also expect to hear very little about the rest of the climate camp. Over the week around 200 workshops and talks will be taking place on all kinds of topics related to climate change. It will use energy produced using solar panels brought to the site, and all are welcome. Visitors and speakers at the camp will include Caroline Lucas MEP, George Monbiot, and Chris Davies MP, who wrote an article in The Guardian recently explaining why he is going to the camp.

So what’s it all about? The present Kingsnorth Power station needs to be replaced. A proposal by E.On to build a new coal-powered station was given the go-ahead by Medway council in January, leaving the decision of whether to build it to the Government.

Coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, so when we should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions, and the Government is including a planned 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, it’s suicide. Especially as this is the first of seven coal-powered stations planned by the Government.

It’s at this point that spokespersons from E.On start talking about carbon capture and storage (CSS). The idea’s simple – grab the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it won’t cause global warming. Like underground. And it’s a good idea. It could reduce the carbon emissions from the new power plant by up to 90%.

And it’s at this point that practical people respond by reminding everyone that CCS isn’t yet available. The Government would like to have a demonstration power plant up and running by 2014 (two years after Kingsnorth will be ready), but they expect that this demonstration will take 15 years. 2029 then. Too little, far too late, to avoid catastrophic climate change. (None of this matters, because as it stands the new Kingsnorth power station may not be made ‘CCS ready’ anyway .

And that is where the arguments grind to a halt. The state of knowledge about CCS technology prevents it from going any further. If we knew that every new coal power plant was going to have CCS technology, and that this would reduce the emissions by 90%, then we would have a proper debate. Assuming, of course, that this could happen immediately.

But the sad fact is that we don’t have time to mess around. Estimations of when we could pass the point of no return with climate change vary wildly. This week the one hundred month campaign was launched, based on research saying that there are 100 months ‘to save the planet’, whereas James Hansen is telling us that we are already past the dangerous level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to start reducing it, instead of just reducing the rate of increase.

So which is it? Well it doesn’t really matter. What we need to do is reduce our emissions to zero, and do it as quickly as possible.

I expect a few of the people at this years climate camp to be anarchist ‘greens’, that want to bring down society, overthrow the Government, and go back to living in tents and caves. Newspapers will refer to people at the camp as ‘environmental protestors’ or something similar, and most will be just that. But the majority of people at the camp are just concerned about the future of the human race, and the millions, if not billions, which will starve or die through global warming in the future. I’m not going to the camp because I want to save polar bears or ice caps. I want to save people.

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Let’s look at what happened in the last week or so.
On 4th July, The Guardian obtained an internal report from the World Bank estimating that biofuels have caused world food prices to rise by 75% (it seems I was far too optimistic on that previously).

On 5th July Gordon Brown gave an interview to The Guardian, in which he said he was going to tell the G8 nations that the problems of climate change and international development should not be sidelined by the credit crunch.

On the 7th July he launched a campaign to drastically reduce food waste in the UK, in an attempt to combat the escalating world food prices.
The very same day, the Government announced that they will be continuing with the requirement to have 2.5% biofuel in all transport fuel, although the planned percentage increases over the coming years will be reduced.

So let’s just recap. We are told to stop wasting our food on the grounds that we need to do everything possible to restrict food price increases, and on the same day we are told biofuels are going to continue to be in our fuel for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that they cause food price escalation, and starve millions.

A few days later, after the widely reported multiple-course lunches at the G8 summit, the issue of climate change seems to have passed the Leaders’ lips. Maybe between courses 6 and 7? It can’t have taken much longer than that, because they made minimal progress. Not even that.

The attempted 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 agreed by the G8 is the only thing that hit the headlines. The UK Government is already supposed to be thinking about a 60% cut by 2050 (in the Climate Bill which seems to have been lost without trace – maybe they left it in a taxi, or on a train). It’s commonly accepted now that an 80% cut is what we really need, with lots of educated voices saying 90% or 100% cuts are required, if not more.

The G8 announcement was so lame that even the head Economist of the Governments own Carbon Trust said it was crap – “an abrogation of responsibility” , as well as a whole host of the usual groups like Greenpeace etc. stating the obvious about it being a great let-down.

So it seems that, yet again, large international talks have come and gone, and all it that came of it was that our mighty world leaders agreed that something should probably be done sometime. But not any time soon, and certainly not with scientifically determined goals.

In the meantime, the Met Office tells us that spring is now arriving 6 days early in the UK , and satellites are showing that the vast Wilkins ice shelf in the Antarctic is collapsing. In winter.

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Let’s talk about planes. Pretty cool things aren’t they. Big hunks of metal that somehow fly around in the sky and can take us from place to place very quickly.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t like planes much, and I try very hard to avoid using them where possible. The responses that I get to this can be annoying (if I’m in a particularly bad mood), amusing, but generally not all that surprising. “The plane’s going anyway, you might as well get on it”, “Green consumerism won’t save the world” etc. etc.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Yes, the plane is going anyway. If I never take another flight for the rest of my life there will be plenty of people to take my place. Numbers of flights will increase dramatically, it will contribute to the drastic rise in temperatures worldwide, and people will die as a result. So if it’s going to happen anyway, why bother? There are two reasons.

Firstly, I will hate myself for it. It’s a very selfish reason, but it’s true. I will feel bad. It will piss me off that I did it, knowing that I am ultimately contributing to a humanitarian disaster, however small this contribution may be.

Secondly, it has an effect on other people. It engages people in the issue. It provokes a response, even if that response is negative. My seemingly drastic action might bring someone to realise what a big problem we face.It might even make them think twice when they are next flying to Paris instead of going on the train. It might only make them think “What a self-righteous little twat!”, but if I stick to my guns, at least they will take me seriously.

So, for this second reason, I will be having an effect. A very small effect, but an effect nonetheless. And what if 10%, or 20% or 50% of people decided to do the same? Then obviously, there would be a big effect. Planes aren’t going to fly around empty (well some might – see here) – it isn’t profitable, and if there isn’t demand, then there won’t be supply either.

It might be obvious, but it’s not the plane I don’t like. It’s the way the plane works. Pumping out lots of gasses that are heating up the globe. If we could find a way of getting from London to New York in a few hours without contributing to our own demise then I’d be the first on the plane! I’d save up and get a private jet! But we can’t (see here), and unless by some miracle that happens you won’t see me on many more planes.

Notice that I haven’t at any point said that I will never fly again. Strong-willed though I am, and annoying though it will be, I know I will get on a plane sometime in the next few years. It would be unrealistic to expect the world to stop flying altogether. But how about getting rid of needless short-haul flights? A huge percentage of flights from the UK could easily be made by other, less destructive, means.

The mentality surrounding the issue is slowly changing. It used to be very difficult to admit to people that I didn’t want to fly. It would prompt an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, followed by comments of a veiled pity. A kind of patronising “Oh don’t worry, you’re young and naïve. You’ll understand that you can’t win in the end” type conversation. This sometimes still happens. But more often now the pity and disbelief is replaced by an often false admiration. “Well done you” or sometimes, “If only we could all do that”. It’s now commonly sociably acceptable to appreciate the problem, but it is not yet commonly sociably acceptable to actually do anything about it.

This mentality is a microcosm of the global warming problem itself. The same goes for coal power and driving around in unnecessarily polluting vehicles. We need to stop treating it as something that wacky ‘greens’ or ‘environmentalists’ do, and realise that it’s something that is practical, and that if we don’t do it then we are just hastening our own demise.

I don’t expect people to stop flying. What I do expect, is that people who fly have thought about whether they could use an alternative, or if their trip is more important than the consequences of their actions. It’s not a lot to ask.

At the next election are you going to vote? If you are – then why? Why bother?! It won’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things.

If you’re not, then why not? Is it because you don’t believe you could change anything? Well you can. And you should.

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Last week ‘The Reverend’ Tony Blair announced that he had been working with a group of climate change experts since he left office, and that he thinks the problem is extremely urgent (1). He said that failing to act on climate change “would be deeply and unforgivably irresponsible” and that the UN is “the right forum to reach the global agreement” . He then popped off to Japan, India and China to have a little chat with them about it all.

It’s not the only problem Blair is trying to help solve at the moment – he’s also Middle East Peace Envoy on behalf of the US, Russia, UN and EU, advisor to the insurer Zurich and investment bank JP Morgan (who will probably be wanting all the advice they can get at the moment), and seminar speaker on “faith and globalisation” at Yale University (2,3). Not to mention trying to encourage investment into Rwanda (2).

Oh, and there is always the ‘Tony Blair Faith Foundation’ that will be launched later in the year (3). I can’t wait! I saw someone in Westminster the other day with a t-shirt saying “WWBD? (What Would Blair Do?)” Well, judging by his recent actions he would probably either a) invade, or b) save. Both while smiling.

You can imagine the conversation at the Reverend’s breakfast table.
Cherie – “Can you pick the kids up tonight? I’m going to be a bit busy.”
Tony – “No sorry, solving Middle East crisis tonight.”
Cherie – “How about tomorrow?”
Tony – “Nope, sorry. Wednesday is Rwanda night with the boys.”
Cherie – “How about we go away this weekend to relax?”
Tony – “Cherie, I’ve told you before, I save the world at weekends! Saturday is climate change and Sunday is a day of rest, unless God has a job for me.”

The Reverend’s climate change record isn’t as bad as Mr.Brown’s, but then that’s not really saying much is it. Blair is generally recognised for helping to get climate change the attention it deserves in the international political arena, and that is one thing he seems to be good at. He will be working to his strengths with this trip, doing what he does best – smiling from ear to ear and speaking with……..as……..many……..pauses…….as…….humanly…….possible…..to try and add sincerity to what he is saying.

The only problem in Blair’s climate mission seems to be the target. He said that “A 50% cut by 2050 has to be a central component”, but anyone who listens to discussions of emissions targets will know that isn’t enough. Even Mr. Brown has admitted that the climate change bill may have to be tightened to 80% by 2050, and many people believe that cuts of 90% or more may be required to avoid the worst of the catastrophes in the pipeline. Hopefully Mr.Blair’s tactic is to get everyone on board and working towards 50% and then try and persuade them that actually it will need to be more at a later date. It would be a much harder sell if he was pushing for 80% or more straight away.

But leaving the Blair’s plans aside for a moment, there was precious little cause for optimism this week in the news. The World Glacier Monitoring Service announced that glaciers around the world had record levels of ice loss in 2006 (4) and aerospace giant EADS announced that they are planning a commercial plane to take space tourists up 100km from Earth (and expect demand to be enough to warrant building 10 of them a year) (5). I’m guessing they won’t be solar powered. How can we pretend we are concerned about climate change when plans like that are still being drawn up?

Not to mention the announcement from Shell this week that it is going into Canadian tar sands in a big way to try and aid it’s falling oil production (6). Extracting oil from tar sands produces even more carbon dioxide than petroleum extraction, and as the oil giants invest heavily in this method, the chances of us avoiding the very worst effects of climate change slip further from our grasp.

The Reverend is well aware of the challenge we face. “If the average person in the US is, say, to emit per capita, one-tenth of what they do today and those in the UK or Japan one-fifth, we’re not talking of adjustment, we’re talking about a revolution.” He said, speaking in Japan.

If Mr. Blair can help to get the international agreements and targets that are desperately needed then that would be a great thing. Let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.

1. ‘Blair to lead campaign on climate change’ – Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 14th March 2008.
2. ‘Blair wants ‘climate revolution’’ – bbc.co.uk, 15th March 2008.
3. ‘Former British Prime Minister Blair to Teach at Yale’ – Yale University News Release, March 7th 2008.
4. ‘Glacier ice loss at record levels’ – Geoffrey Lean, The Independent Online, 16th March 2008.
5. ‘Space planes ‘to meet big demand’’ – Jonathan Amos, bbc.co.uk, 17th March 2008.
6. ‘Shell pushes into Canadian tar sands to arrest falling production’ – Danny Fortson, The Independent, 18th March 2008.

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The IPCC’s third assessment in 2001 predicted a temperature rise of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees worldwide by the end of this century depending upon how the world responds to the threat of climate change over the coming years (1).

Mark Lynas decided to try and understand what this would actually mean. What would a temperature change of six degrees change around the world? How serious would the consequences be? Over a period of two years he did his best to find out, by reading hundreds of peer-reviewed science papers and collating them, degree by degree, into chapters for his book ‘Six Degrees’ (2).

The information in his book can largely be grouped into two types. It is either formed through computer modelling to make predictions of future conditions and knock-on effects of warming, or through examinations of what life was like on the earth previously when global temperatures were different than they are today.

The findings are, understandably, very alarming. Instead of listing some of them here, I will direct you instead to Lynas’ website (click here), where there are short videos of the findings, degree by degree, detailing the increased natural disasters, rising sea levels and increased desertification, amongst other things. These videos are taken from an adaptation of the book’s findings, made by National Geographic and broadcast in the U.S. recently (3).

Realclimate.org, the climate change site run by a collection of climate scientists, gave the book a good review (4), as did many other people, including the journalist Johann Hari (5).

Unlike other books that have been written about climate change recently, such as ‘Heat’ (George Monbiot) or ‘The Hot Topic’ (Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King), Six Degrees does not examine how we can combat the problem, but instead lays it out in front of us to explain the severity of the problem.

This is a crucially important aspect of the book, because the more that the general public hears about global warming, the more they will wonder what all the fuss is about if the potential consequences are not explained to them beyond polar bears and hosepipe bans.

In ‘Heat’ George Monbiot packs in a huge amount of science, as well as practical observations on what can be done to combat the problem and also, importantly, what shouldn’t be done (6). However, ‘The Hot Topic’ will benefit from having Sir David King (ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK Government) as an author (7), as he may be viewed by some people as more of a ‘qualified’ writer on the topic than either Monbiot or Lynas. Unfortunately, what King’s book has in ‘qualification’ it lacks in urgency, which both ‘Heat’ and ‘Six Degrees’ have in spades.

At a talk by Sir David King this week, I asked him what the Government is planning to do to educate the ‘general public’ on climate change. He responded by saying that that was exactly why he had written his book, and alas they had not allowed him to write it while he was in Government. I was going to ask if therefore he was planning on giving a copy to every man, woman and child in the country, but I didn’t get a chance. I suspect he isn’t going to.

He also said that not only do we have to educate the ‘general public’, but also the academics and “you and me” – which led me to wonder why academics and I were no longer members of the general public ourselves. People such as Sir David King should be combining their privileged position and knowledge of the science, with the urgency that they know the issue requires, in order to educate and include the ‘general public’ (and everyone else!) in the solution to the problem. Presently, the issue is being tackled most seriously by journalists and activists such as Monbiot and Lynas, but in order to reach more people we need those in positions of authority to be making the same kind of noise about the problem we face.

In writing this book Mark Lynas has done us a great service. He has written a review of the scientific literature, but unlike the majority of scientific reviews he has focused on how this science will help the general public. The result is a book that effortlessly informs the reader of the present scientific understanding, with an emphasis on the consequences of the findings, and not on the science itself. In doing so, Lynas has bridged the gap between scientific research and ‘everyday life’, which means that his book stands up to scientific interrogation, whilst still providing an easy to understand warning to the reader of the likely consequences if we do not tackle climate change as best we can.

It is this kind of interface between science and the general public that will be of increasing importance over the coming years. The global nature of the problem means that everyone will become a climate change expert in their own eyes, but only a small number will remain experts in the science of climate change, and it is these people to whom we have to listen.


1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 1, Third Assessment Report, Figure 5(d). This can be found here.

2. ‘Six Degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ – Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate, 2007.

3. http://www.marklynas.org, ‘Six Degrees’ section.

4. Realclimate.org, November 2007. Review can be found here.

5. ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here’ – Johann Hari, New Statesman, 2nd April 2007.

6.’Heat – How to stop the planet burning’ – George Monbiot, Allen Lane, 2006.

7.’The Hot Topic – How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on’ – Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, Bloomsbury, 2008.

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Recently the Environmental Audit Committee group of MPs, led by the Conservative MP Tim Yeo, produced their report ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’ in which they tried to find out the answer to the title (1). Their conclusion? That there should be a moratorium on biofuels until “technology improves, robust mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change are developed, and international sustainability standards are agreed”(1).

Regular worshippers at the church of George Monbiot – activist and sensible person generally – will know that he suggested this should be the answer to the problem of biofuels nearly a year ago (2) and this was also suggested more recently by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, who got a lot of press for saying that biofuels were “a crime against humanity”(3)

The word biofuel is a broad term used for a renewable fuel produced through biological reactions using the suns energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They include fuels that are designed for use in conventional combustion engines such as ‘bioethanol’ and ‘biodiesel’ (this is the main appeal of biofuels – it gives Governments an apparent ‘get out of jail free card’ meaning they can appear to be combating climate change while causing minimal annoyance to the general public) as well as things like normal firewood.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biofuels are burnt is offset by the carbon dioxide taken in to produce the fuel, and this is the basis for excitement about them.

So far so good, but clearly that is only half the story. There are two main problems with biofuels at the moment, each of which makes them potentially disastrous for the globe.

Firstly, the processes involved in much of biofuel production are large net producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to pesticides, harvesting and processing requirements – all of which requires more energy, which at the moment comes from burning fossil fuels. Overall many biofuels may actually cause more harm to the environment than fossil fuels do(4).

Secondly there is the link to food prices. As more and more farmers across the world begin to produce biofuels instead of basic food crops, the price of food will escalate and the global poor will suffer as a result (5), especially as the farmers likely to be paid to convert to these crops are in lesser developed countries.

There is also the problem of energy density. A very large amount of a biofuel crop (and therefore a large land area to grow it) is required to produce a relatively small amount of usable energy compared to the fossil fuels we are used to using. In a study by LMC International on biofuels and agriculture in 2006 (widely referenced since) it was found that in order to make 5% of fuel worldwide biofuels by 2015, we would need 15% more land for agriculture worldwide (6). That means saying goodbye to forests and rainforests (closely averted recently in Uganda (7)) as well as inevitable switching from food to fuel production. That would mean game over for trying to restrict climate change – and that’s just for 5%!

In 2007 the EU agreed to a target of 10% of transport fuel in Europe to come from biofuels by 2020(8). Less than a year later the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted that they had not foreseen the problems that this target would present(9) and that it would be reviewed, but as far as I am aware at the time of writing the target still stands.

So if biofuels are so bad why are there calls for a 5-year moratorium and not an all-out ban? The thinking behind this is that so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels (which would demand another entire piece like this one to explain), with carefully controlled production, may still be able to provide renewable and ethical sources of energy in the future (although these are not likely to be viable according to the campaign group Biofuelwatch (www.biofuelwatch.org.uk)(10). Also, calculations on land requirements for biofuel production in the UK may not always take into account that many biofuel crops grown are dual purpose, and may simultaneously produce animal feed, possibly reducing required imports presently (according to the NFU – ref.11).

It remains to be seen whether these ‘second generation’ promises materialise, but whatever happens one thing is for sure – we can’t rely on biofuels to solve the problem of climate change.

The consequences of pursuing the use of the presently available biofuels are obvious and are already starting to take effect. Governments and International bodies need to discard their biofuel targets before they make the problem any worse. Pleading unfortunate ignorance of the consequences is not acceptable.

1. Are Biofuels Sustainable? – Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2007–08. Available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmenvaud.htm#reports.
2. A Lethal Solution – George Monbiot, 27th March 2007.
3. UN independent rights expert calls for five-year freeze on biofuel production – UN News Centre, 26 October 2007.
4. How Green Are Biofuels? – Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, Science Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 – 44.
5. IMF concerned by impact of biofuels on food prices – AFP, October 17, 2007.
6. A Strategic Assessment of the Impact of Biofuel Demand for Agricultural Commodities – LMC International (2006).
7. Uganda ‘averts tragedy’ with reversal of decision to clear virgin forest for biofuel – Xan Rice, The Guardian, October 29, 2007.
8. EU ministers agree biofuel target – bbc.co.uk, 15th February 2007.
9. EU rethinks biofuels guidelines – Roger Harrabin, bbc.co.uk, 14 January 2008.
10. ‘Second Generation Biofuels: An Unproven Future Technology with Unknown Risks’ – Helena Paul and Almuth Ernsting, biofuelwatch.org.uk. Click here to download.
11. ‘UK biofuels – land required to meet RTFO 2010’ – National Farmers’ Union Online, 10 August 2006.

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