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Biotechnology to combat climate change

Stephanie Batchelor


Source: Biotechnology Industry Organization

In December 2009, hundreds of countries from around the globe converged in Copenhagen in an attempt to secure a global agreement on climate change adaptation and mitigation. While the Conference did not result in a binding global agreement, the message to the international community was clear: we must find and implement solutions to end the global climate crisis. To meet the drastic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions needed to halt climate change, a suite of solutions is required. Industrial biotechnology is one such solution, currently being deployed across the globe.

Clearly defined, industrial biotechnology is the application of life sciences to traditional manufacturing and chemical synthesis. Industrial biotechnology is used in applications such as biofuels, biobased products and the improvement of manufacturing processes.

In the Americas, the most common biofuel currently in production is ethanol-derived from corn or sugarcane. The United States commercially produces corn-based ethanol, which is effectively capped at 56.8 billion litres per year under the United States Renewable Fuel Standard. Brazil produces 598 million metric tonnes of sugarcane to produce 25.5 billion litres of ethanol. According to 2009 figures from the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA), the country is the number one sugarcane grower and sugar producer in the world, and the second largest ethanol producer on the planet, behind the United States. Moreover,several next generation biofuels in production, largely in the U.S. and Canada, have the potential to make massive reductions in GHG emissions.

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that in the United States, advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol from agricultural residues or dedicated energy crops, reduce lifecycle GHG emissions by over 100 per cent compared to fossil alternatives. In addition, dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass or miscanthus can increase long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in soils, and biotech crop varieties can substantially improve yields, leading to reduced deforestation.

Biofuels made from algae also provide sustainable solutions to fossil energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, some algal strains are capable of doubling their mass several times per day. In some cases, more than half of that mass consists of lipids or triacylglycerides —the same material found in vegetable oils. These bio-oils can be used to produce such advanced biofuels as biodiesel, green diesel, green gasoline and green jet fuel.

Algae, along with a range of other feedstocks, can be used to make biobased products as well. Biobased products, such as chemicals and plastics produced from renewable biomass,
provide superior GHG and energy independence benefits as compared to traditional products made from petroleum feedstocks. In fact, many biobased products are carbon negative on a lifecycle basis because they sequester atmospheric carbon within the product itself. These product applications used in everyday life can range from biobased carpets, car seats, pens, packaging, pharmaceuticals, detergents and even personal care products such as cosmetics or lotions made from feedstocks such as algae.

Biofuels, biobased products and processes make a compelling case for economic development as well as GHG reduction benefits. While the global economic and climate change crises persist, the biotechnology industry is poised to provide much-needed economic growth and social empowerment in the developed and developing world. In the United States, for example, direct job creation from advanced biofuels production could reach 29,000 by 2012, 94,000 by 2016, and 190,000 by 2022 according to a 2009 report by the Bio Economic Research Associates (bio-era). In Brazil, more than one million people are employed in the biofuels industry,producing literally billions of litres of ethanol. Canada has several research and development facilities, along with pilot and demonstration biorefineries, and the potential for biomass development in other sections of the Americas is largely untapped. As this industry blossoms, federal, state and local governments, along with private companies are investing more and more into biofuels and beyond.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated in 2009 that industrial biotechnology has the potential to save the planet up to 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Attainment of desired GHG reductions will require our economy to transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy resources and to achieve much higher levels of energy efficiency. However, there are challenges to this burgeoning industry that can threaten its promising future. For example, indirect land use change models, which calculate indirect effects associated with growing energy crops in place of food, remains highly controversial in the scientific community. A conclusive policy on modelling indirect land use change must be developed for investment in these biotechnologies to be assured. Infrastructure issues such as lack of transportation pipelines and retrofitted pumps, and the percentage of biofuels that is allowed to be blended with conventional fuels present further challenges to the industry. In order to realize the breadth of biotechnology possibilities, these issues will need to be addressed.

Industrial biotechnology is a critical technology for combating climate change and empowering economic development. It is the key to producing clean, renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and products, and can greatly reduce the energy consumption and GHG emissions from a wide range of industrial processes by enhancing efficiency, reducing waste and capturing and converting carbon dioxide. Industrial biotechnology applications are already changing the way we view consumer products. What it comes down to is choice. We as consumers have the choice now to use a variety of products. As the old adage goes, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. The global economy does not need to run out of oil to make the choice to diversify its supply and to use cleaner and more renewable products.

Stephanie Batchelor is Manager of State and International Policy at the Industrial and Environmental Section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. She can be reached atsbatchelor@bio.org. Save the date for the BIO 2010 Pacific Rim Summit, co-locating this year with the American Chemical Society’s Pacifichem. For more information, please visit www.bio.org/pacrim.

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