Biofuels drive could cause more harm than good

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China has announced a major drive towards the use of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel - just as another report pours more water on the idea that biofuels will end the energy crisis.

ChinaPower, a company run by the daughter of former Prime Minister Li Peng, has pledged to invest $1.3 billion in alternative fuels, much of which will go towards plantations of energy crops such as cereals and oily fruits.

The announcement comes as scientist and former Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen publishes a paper in the 'Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions' journal, showing that emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from the use fertiliser to grow energy crops has been heavily underestimated.

Together with international colleagues, Crutzen has showed that microbes in the soil actually turn some 3 - 5 per cent of the nitrate in the fertiliser into nitrous oxide, as opposed to 1 per cent as previously thought.

This has led the scientists to calculate that emissions of nitrous oxide, some 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from growing rapeseed crops actually cause up to 1.7 times more global warming than the 'offset' effect caused by burning a supposedly 'carbon-neutral' fuel.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007