Biofuels – Love them or loathe them

The UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels i

Love them or loathe them, it is certain that you can’t keep biofuels out of the headlines. Last year the financial pages hyped biofuels as the next big green investment opportunity.

This year the column inches paint an emotive picture of biofuels as the root of many evils currently afflicting the planet - rainforest destruction, starvation, poverty. It is probably safe to assume that neither picture is accurate.

But given that biofuels will almost certainly be part of our low-carbon energy future there is a genuine need for greater transparency and understanding, both with regards to the scale of benefits that biofuels can bring, but also over the risks that they carry.

When considering the scale of the impact, it is worth observing the normal modus operandi of the detractors of all forms of renewable energy, which is to pick on a single technology or process, present it as a ‘universal’ solution and then to ridicule this proposition.

Remember the images of a countryside swathed in wind turbines, as Bernard Ingham protested that wind ‘is not an answer to global warming’? Now we are told that there is simply not enough land to meet global demand for both fuels and food, but it is still not apparent who presented this as a serious proposal.

Given the scale of the challenge that we face, one might have hoped that the debate over climate change would have grown up, and those with a serious interest in securing stabilisation of CO2 concentrations at 550ppm would have accepted the reality that only a diverse combination of measures – each with their own advantages, limitations and risks – can together deliver progress.

There is no magic bullet.

Biofuels have a part to play, and in reality it is modest - the EU has limited its ambition for biofuels to 10% of the transport fuels market by 2020. The UK government estimates that its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation will be saving 1 Mtonnes of carbon annually by 2010; by no means the complete solution to the crisis of burgeoning transport emissions.

But this limited scope is no reason in itself not to pursue the opportunity: it is the sum of a series of actions, each pursued vigorously and effectively that will mitigate climate change. Dismissing a solution because it alone fails to deliver salvation, plays directly into the hands of those with a vested interest in doing no more than preserving the status quo.

So what of the well-publicized risks? It is true, there are risks inherent in a biofuels supply. As indeed there are in many of the steps that we must take in the path to tackling climate change, and at times society faces difficult decisions. But the suggestion that these are not being recognized and managed, whilst it might make good campaign fodder, is far off the mark.

The EU’s 10% biofuels target is itself rooted in the research of the European Environment Agency, which found that European agriculture could meet - sustainably -17% of our primary energy needs. The report carried the caveat that specific steps must be taken to develop these resources with proper environmental safeguards. The UK is doing just that. To support this, the Government has established an ambitious programme of carbon reporting for biofuels that has as its end goal an incentive framework that rewards biofuels not on volumes supplied, but on the basis of verified carbon savings.

In taking these steps the UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels industry. Indeed, the industry has gone a step further, proposing an ambitious timetable for the move to carbon-based incentives.

This is simply a case of good risk management for business. Any environmental policy that ignores sustainability, or any carbon abatement policy that cannot demonstrate its capacity to deliver carbon savings, is itself unsustainable and presents unacceptable risk to investors. The timetable provides a clear way forward, whilst accepting that we cannot regulate on the basis of carbon until we have the data to make accurate and informed decisions.

In the real world this takes time, but will result in a better system that is built on the solid foundation of reliable data, not an artifice that presents the illusion of progress but delivers no real safeguards. The UK biofuels supply chain is working towards implementing a system that is robust, credible and enduring, rather than dashing to deliver a quick fix that would inevitably unravel.

And there may be a bigger prize from this approach. A leadership position is only of value if others follow, and while the UK may be pursuing biofuels for carbon abatement goals, the motivation elsewhere in Europe today can be decidedly different. The only prospect for more widespread adoption of the UK approach will be if the Commission and other Member States are persuaded that it is a reliable, workable and effective tool for securing carbon savings. Biofuels’ detractors have far more to gain from supporting the UK policy than attacking it.

Graham is Head of Fuels and Heat at the Renewable Energy Association, an organisation representing a broad base of interests across the UK renewable energy sector. He has advised a range of Government and private clients, including the Department for Transport which he advised on the implementation of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.
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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.