What we learned this week

  • Battles Lines: Interesting piece in the Financial Times about trust in science.
  • The only hope for sustainable aviation is biofuels, so it’s something of a milestone for KLM to have flown the first commercial flight using them at the end of June. Now we just need to hurry up and get some international agreement on what is and what isn’t sustainable biofuel.
  • Another article on how India can be both a recipient and donor of aid, this time from Foreign Policy magazine.
  • Ever wondered if you can statistically prove short-term thinking in the markets? Here’s an attempt from the Bank of England. (pdf)


    1. Good point. I’ve read about that a couple of times, the Zeppelin company is still going, and apparently still suffering from the PR fallout of the Hindenberg. I look forward to being able to catch an airship from Luton airport one day, and drift off towards Europe on holiday.

      1. More on biofuels: an article questioning whether the flight in May was really a very significant step. Even with questions of relative ecological footprint aside, aviation biofuels apparently face problems with scalability. I’m no expert on this, but I’m not holding my breath for the day when we can all jet around with clean consciences.

  1. The problems with biofuel are well known: in particular, its contribution to higher food prices as good agricultural land is used to fill fuel tanks instead of hungry bellies. A problem put into sharp focus by the current disaster in East Africa. But it seems they may be even worse than was thought. A Reuters report today (see link below) based on leaked EU documents (an FOI request was refused) suggests that “Europe’s biodiesel industry could be wiped out by EU plans to tackle the unwanted side effects of biodiesel production”. It seems current plans could lead to an indirect one-off release of around 1,000 megatonnes of CO2 – more than twice Germany’s annual emissions. An extract:

    “These reports clearly show scientists are convinced that current EU biofuels policy will indirectly cause significant environmental damage,” said Nusa Urbancic at green transport campaign group T&E. “The EU must stop brushing the problem under the carpet.”

    Here’s the link with the detail: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/07/08/us-eu-biofuels-idUKTRE76726B20110708

    Such concerns do not, however, apply to biodiesel produced from used cooking oil – of great interest to me as I am involved in a cooking oil to diesel project. And that, I understand, is the solution being pursued by KLM. As its managing director has said, use of such fuels has a “minimum negative impact on biodiversity and food supply.” A concern I suspect (and I have some knowledge of this) may be that supplies of used cooking oil are relatively limited.

    1. Yes, I’m interested in the cooking oil solution, and also algae biofuels. Biofuels are complicated, but aviation is one of the few places where they make sense, as long as they are sustainable. I’ve chosen not to fly any more, but since that’s not a choice most flyers are going to make, and some can’t make, we have to find ways to lower the impact of aviation. The the price of oil is going to make it much more expensive, so it’s all change in the aviation industry anyway.
      The other place I see a use for biofuels is in agriculture. Biodiesel is not particularly difficult to produce, and I expect many large farms will want to put aside some of their more marginal and less productive land for biofuels, and become energy self-sufficient. If you can use all your land and make your biofuels out of a pond, so much the better – there are pilot projects doing that in Australia.

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