Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Biology

  1.  The Institute of Biology is the independent and charitable body charged by Royal Charter to further the study and application of the UK biology and allied biosciences. Its 15,000 members (January 2002) and over 60 specialist, learned Affiliated Societies, make the Institute ideally placed to respond to the above consultation.

  2.  The response's principal points include:

    i.  Non-carbon fuels are worthy of interest for both climate change and fossil fuel sustainability let alone energy security and balance of payments reasons.

    ii.  Though still carbon fuels, biofuels can (and should) contribute to both sustainable energy as well as greenhouse friendly UK energy policy strategies

    iii.  Government research into biofuels has been uncoordinated as well as piecemeal, and industrial energy research has declined

    iv.  There is a need to identify promising biofuels technologies but no point doing this without ensuring long-term investment is available

    v.  Other countries have major biofuel programmes and some potential biofuel crop species are found overseas. There is also the potential for genetic modification to enhance biofuels. Because biofuel crops need not be part of the human food chain and since some imported species cannot interbreed with UK species, GM technology for energy crops may be publicly less controversial than for food crops. For these reasons there is a rationale for collaboration with other countries.

    vi.  Governmental investment in energy research has not taken up the slack arising from energy privatisation


  Interest in non-carbon fuels is worthy for climate change, energy security and fossil fuel sustainability reasons

  3.  The Institute well understands the considerable interest in non-carbon fuels for sustainability, energy security, balance of payments and anthropogenic (human induced) greenhouse considerations. Indeed, there has been some considerable parliamentary interest both a UK and EC levels for these reasons.

  The IoB has worked on energy and environment issues and these are a policy priority

  4.  This Institute has worked with its peer group of Royal Chartered bodies, the Royal Society of Chemistry and Institute of Physics on energy and environment issues. This year, for example, our three bodies have each run a DTI sponsored workshop in a series called "Fuelling the Future". Regrettably our sponsor did not feel it appropriate to support publishing the outcomes. Consequently, as the Select Committee members may recall, these were published at a meeting of the Select Committee as part of this year's Parliamentary Links Day. This Institute continues to maintain an interest in energy and the environment issues as part of its support of its Affiliated Societies top priorities as one of these is that sustainability policy be based on sound science.

  But biofuels have climate change, energy security and balance of payments advantages yet are still carbon based

  5.  If we presume that the Select Committee has chosen the topic of Towards a Non-Carbon Fuel Economy for the reason given above in paragraph 3, then we would like to make the observation that biofuels are not conventionally viewed as fossil fuels (though fossil fuels are biogenic in origin hence technically biofuels). Nor do biofuels affect the carbon cycle in a more rapid way than fossil fuels. Indeed the burning of fossil fuels short-circuits what is known as the "deep carbon cycle". In the deep carbon cycle fossil fuels are formed over many millions of years and slowly returned to the atmospheric carbon reservoirs by a variety of routes over similar and longer timescales. Conversely, the burning of wood generates carbon dioxide which typically floats about the atmosphere for a century (or two) before being trapped during photosynthesis by plants or algae.

  Biofuels need to be included in both energy sustainability as well as greenhouse policies. Consequently we report on them in this response

  6.  Because the use of biofuels is more sustainable, for the reasons given above, they should be included with low carbon technologies in any policy strategy devised to meet UK energy needs in the twenty-first century and beyond, and in this response even though this consultation is nominally on non-carbon fuels.

  Biofuels can replace oil as chemical feedstocks

  7.  It should also be noted that biofuels could also be used as chemical feedstock replacements for oil. This also has considerable sustainability and economic implications for the UK.


Evaluation of the level of R&D expenditure

Government research into biofuels has been piecemeal and industrial energy research has declined

  8.  Research into biofules has been piecemeal and lacking policy-driven direction. There has been no sustained long-term research programme to encourage development of a small research community to explore the potential of biofuels. Because sustainability and greenhouse concerns are largely policy-driven, there is a good case for much of this research to be funded by Government Departments (as opposed to the Science Base which funds more fundamental, basic or blue skies research). The demise of the Department of Energy (DEn) meant that the prospect of adequate energy research became diminished. Indeed the Department of Trade and Industry's (DTI) own Science, Engineering and Technology budget has been reduced by almost a half in real terms between 1986/87 and 1999/2000. The privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board resulted in the closure of its laboratories as well as much of its sponsored research. Currently, there is a small unit within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs co-ordinating biofuel research and development and there is also a small sustainable technology unit within the DTI. However, these do not command the resources or have the scientific expertise to nurture the necessary research community to develop biofuels into a meaningful national resource, let alone a technology that can be marketed World-wide.

Identifying which technologies need support

There is a need to identify promising biofuel technology but no point doing this without ensuring that long-term research investment is available

  9.  There is a need to identify which biofuel technologies need support for both R&D and demonstration scale development. However, there is little point in engaging in such an exercise without knowing that the necessary long-term investment is there to support such activities. Such an exercise needs to be long-term as the UK needs to develop its expertise with a research community in this area and this takes time.

Rationale for international collaboration

Other countries have major biofuel programmes and some potential biofuel crop species are found overseas

  10.  The US and Canada have major biofuel programmes and many species found overseas have potential biofuel use. Tropical grasses are an example commonly cited, but many species have not been assessed. There is also the theoretical potential for genetically modifying these species to maximise their energy content. Unlike many examples of current GM technology, such modification of imported species would not facilitate foreign gene flow into native UK species (though of course this would need to be rigorously researched). Nor would these GM energy crop species be part of (what is called) the human food chain. Consequently, this might be more of a publicly acceptable and meaningful use of GM technology. This might especially be if for some, currently concerned with GM technology, recognised that the choice came down to continuing fossil fuel consumption and/or a major expansion of the nuclear programme. Because of the potential to import species as well as to accrue synergistic benefits from existing biofuel programmes overseas, there is a good rationale for international collaboration.

Energy privatisation

Industry is primarily concerned with near-market research

  11.  Industry, naturally, is primarily (and rightly) concerned with a return for its shareholders. Unlike a very few industries (such as the pharmaceutical industry), most industries only undertake near-market applied research. Applied research that is not near-to-the-market and fundamental or blue skies research, is rarely invested in by industry for purely commercial reasons as such research can easily end up in the industry's competitors' hands. For this reason it is important that Governments of developed nations, especially those wishing a more knowledge-based economy, should invest in fundamental research on the one hand (which the UK has done so well through the Science Base), and applied and policy-driven research on the other, through Government Departments. The former is the more "R" of "R&D" and the latter more the "D". (The Select Committee may recall that this Institute made this point as part of its response to the Are We Realising Our Potential? consultation (2001).)

Governmental investment in energy research has not taken up the slack arising from energy privatisation

  12.  However with regards to energy research the Government Departments have not taken up the slack generated by the energy industry's privatisation. Up to now the UK has been far better at the "R" and less so at the "D" and the reason for this is in no small part due to the lack of Departmental investment in the latter. Indeed, the Select Committee has recognised this real-term decline in investment (and major decrease in terms of a proportion of the GDP of the economy such research would innovate) in its report Government Expenditure on Research and Development (2000).

The CSA advises extra investment in Governmental energy R&D

  13.  The Chief Scientific Advisor's (CSA) Energy Research Review Group reported in 2001 on the need for extra Governmental investment in energy research. We concur wholeheartedly with this view.

Every form of energy exploitation, including non-carbon, has an environmental impact

  14.  With regards to true non-carbon fuels, it has to be recognised that every form of energy exploitation has environmental impact. For example, we have commented on the environmental impact of tidal and estuary energy barrages to the Select Committee for its enquiry on this topic last year.


  15.  In line with Government policy on openness this Institute is pleased for this response to be publicly available and will shortly be placing a version on Should the Committee have any further questions relating to this response then they, in the first instance, should feel free to contact: Jonathan Cowie, Institute of Biology, 20-22 Queensberry Place, London, SW7 2DZ.

September 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 11 April 2003