I spent a very interesting evening attending talks and general chat organised by the Cambridge Energy Forum. A very interesting set of speakers – Prof. Roger Kemp, Dr. Gail Smith and Simon Harris – talked about sustainable transport, biofuels and new gadgets to log and display vehicle emissions.
Prof Kemp talked about the complexities of determining what is the greenest way to travel. Key indicators are the “passenger intensity” versus distance balance. It’s not as simple as plane/car bad, train/bus good. In some cases, flying can actually use less fuel / passenger km than taking the train.
Dr. Smith talked about the difficulties of supplying sufficient biofuels to successfully replace our usage of mineral oils. The main problem is that the amount of farmland required to make sufficient fuel-crops would a) be huge, b) increase the cost of food and c) need to be carefully managed to make sure the most suitable crops are grown. Current “1st generation” biofuels may not actually offer much in the way of CO2 reductions due to the energy required to make them in bulk – after food displacement, land clearance, fertiliser, farm management, transport and processing are all taken into account.
Simon Harris talked about a new device his company is developing. It aims to be a cheap add-on to vehicles which enables logging and display of emissions data (NOX, CO2 and particulates), a little like a more advanced version of the fuel economy displays you get today.
In general, it was heartening to see so many interested people from the local science/engineering field. However, it was also discouraging to hear that the complexities of the issues don’t lend themselves well to good policy advice for politicians and the public. Should I now review my burning of biodiesel in my Fiesta because it’s not necessarily clear how carbon neutral it might actually be?