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Europe likes biofuels, but some are 'worse than useless' Add to ...

BIOFUEL BOOSTERISM

THE NEWS The European Union unveiled its new plan for tackling climate change last week, with an overall goal of at least a 20-per-cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Highlights include: generating at least 20 per cent of the continent's energy from renewables, a carbon-trading scheme (which puts a price on carbon emissions, encouraging industry to lower them) and - most controversial - a requirement that 10 per cent of transport fuels come from biofuels.

THE BUZZ Biofuels are promoted as "green" because, even though they produce carbon dioxide when burned, they soak up carbon dioxide while growing and so are thought to lower greenhouse-gas emissions over all compared with fossil fuels. But they cause ecological havoc in other ways: using corn and wheat for fuel drives up the price of food crops, rain forests are cut down to grow palm oil and sugar cane, and the crops devour huge quantities of fresh water.

THE BOTTOM LINE In the long run, greenhouse-gas savings from today's biofuels are marginal to none when you factor in the fossil fuels required to power the farm machinery, transport vehicles and refineries. Moreover, if you consider the extra nitrous oxide (also a greenhouse gas) emitted to the atmosphere from the required fertilizers, some biofuels - in particular, canola - can actually be worse for global warming than fossil fuels, says Keith Smith, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Edinburgh who published a research paper on the subject this week in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, co-written with Nobel-prize winner Paul Crutzen. "So in practical terms, some biofuels are actually worse than useless," Prof. Smith says. "The evidence against them is piling up."

HARD ROCK OIL

THE NEWS Mining of vast oil shale and tar-sand deposits may begin soon in the U.S. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed that land-use legislation be changed to allow the development of up to 1.9 million acres of public land in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The move could result in about 61 billion barrels of oil being produced. And that would just scratch the surface: In total, the shale deposits potentially hold more than a trillion barrels of oil.

THE BUZZ The shales would be even more resistant to relinquish their oil than the Alberta tar sands. They don't actually contain oil - the pores of the rock hold kerogen, and the rocks would need to be mined, crushed and heated to produce oil. But Shell says it has developed a new process that would "protect" the environment: insert electric heaters deep into the rock, cook the kerogen and suck out the oil. No muss, no fuss. But the technology is still unproved. And even so, to heat the shales could require new power plants - probably nuclear or coal-fired - to squeeze out just 100,000 barrels a day.

THE BOTTOM LINE Several times over the past century, oil companies have considered - and even on occasion started - mining the shales. But it seems they are serious this time. And if they do go ahead, production could generate up to 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

SUN CITY

THE NEWS One of the most oil-rich countries on Earth is about to build the world's first sustainable city. The United Arab Emirates is starting construction on Masdar, just outside Abu Dhabi, designed by British architect Lord Foster. The city will house up to 50,000 people, be car-free, produce no waste and no carbon and run almost entirely on sunlight. A new solar-power plant is being built, with 80 per cent of roofs covered in solar panels.

THE BUZZ Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world, sitting on about 100 billion barrels of oil, and has the planet's largest carbon footprint. Some critics see Masdar as a public-relations exercise: Although the eco-town will cost billions, the city still pumps trillions into fossil fuels.

THE BOTTOM LINE Abu Dhabi is investing half a billion dollars into manufacturing the solar panels, which in the long run will make the city a global centre for solar technology and facilitate the development of better photovoltaic panels for the whole planet to use.

SOLAR SAVVY

THE NEWS Solar savvy isn't just for sunny countries: Half the world's solar panels are actually installed in Germany. And now scientists from eight British universities are teaming together in one of the largest solar-power projects ever undertaken in the U.K. More than £6-million (about $12-million) will be invested in developing cheaper, more efficient thin-film solar cells.

THE BUZZ Photovoltaic solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, have always been maligned as expensive (mostly because of the high price of silicon) and inefficient. But the clunky panels of yesterday are being replaced with sleek, new designs able to create more electricity with less - or even no - silicon. Already, companies all over the world are selling solar panels with clever, more efficient arrays of prisms, mirrors and lenses. And thin film solar panels - such as new flexible plastic sheets that can be easily rolled onto any surface (or, theoretically, mounted onto the back of an iPod or cellphone) - are generating excitement because of their low cost and durability.

THE BOTTOM LINE Solar power, after a long incubation period, is now the world's fastest-growing sector in the global energy markets. Cheap and efficient new technologies are mushrooming, California is installing a million solar roofs and Ontario - which pays solar-panel owners a premium rate to feed electricity into the grid - signed 145 contracts last year. Now, we just need the other provinces to follow suit.

Zoe Cormier is a science writer based in London. Her column on environmental news and trends appears every other week in Focus.

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