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Science
COSTING THE EARTH
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Thursday 21:00-21:30
Repeat Friday 15:00
Costing the Earth tells stories which touch all our lives, looking at man's effect on the environment and at how the environment reacts. It questions accepted truths, challenges the people in charge and reports on progress towards improving the world we live in.
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LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 17 May
PRESENTER
TOM HEAP
Tom Heap
PROGRAMME DETAILS
Thursday 17 May 2007
Biofuel pump
Biofuels are already on sale in the UK

Biofuels - As green as they seem?

Biofuels are being marketed as the cleaner greener alternative and, in part, a solution to depleting stocks of fossil fuel. Powering our cars from plants such as wheat or oilseed rape may sound environmentally friendly but Tom Heap finds out that not all biofuels are equal.

The UK Government aims to ensure 5% of fuels sold by 2010 are biofuels - either bioethanol or biodiesel - and that target is set to rise to 10% and beyond. In theory plants are 'carbon neutral' or make a saving because they use up carbon as they grow which balances out the carbon they produce when burnt. However the different energy inputs in the production processes and the green house gases emitted mean that some can be even worse than fossil fuels. The type of crop used can also vary in how effective it is.

The biofuels boom has meant some countries are eager to cash in by growing biofuels crops - but at what cost? This has already caused the destruction of rainforest in Malaysia and Brazil and it could get even worse. The British Government is planning to introduce legislation to label where our biofuels come from but environmental groups say this is useless and they want a ban on the worst types. Friends of the Earth have called biofuels a 'Pandora's box'.

Tom also looks into land availability and whether the UK has enough space to grow these crops. One future solution is to grow so-called 'second generation' crops including willow and grasses. These can be developed to produce more yield for the land area but this could have knock-on effects onto the soil quality and our landscape. It's estimated we could see as much willow in our countryside as we currently see in oil seed rape.

Scientists are also working to breed crops which are more efficient and allow more of the plant to be used. In theory rather than just using the kernal the best crops will also break down the cell wall to allow the sugars in the structure of the plant to make fuel too. Tom meets the scientists who are working on this but will the environmentalists, or even the public, accept a little genetic modification if it helps produce a better biofuel?

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