Growing the Bioeconomy Over Next Decade Crucial to Combatting Climate Change

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, October 22, 2018

The most recent consensus report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5° should serve as a wakeup call to humanity.  According to the October 8 report, the world has only 12 years to dramatically shift economies from their utter reliance on fossil fuels to be able to meet net zero emissions by 2050. These targets are required if we are to keep global temperatures at or below 1.5°C, a threshold that the IPCC finds will invoke conditions that will make large swaths of the globe uninhabitable, causing massive destabilization among society.

Already, the world has warmed 1°C since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The fairly conservative consensus report warns that “there is no documented historic precedent” for the dramatic action that is needed to limit the harmful effects even 1.5°C warming will have on the earth’s ecosystem.

Doing a complete 180 degree turn towards renewables and zero carbon technologies, while already underway, will require a massive, sustained and coordinated effort. This shift will necessarily include ultra-low carbon biofuels, biobased heat, power, and cooling as well as biobased products and chemicals. Additionally, if 1.5°C is overshot, as many scientists predict, carbon negative technologies, including bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECSS) and direct air capture (DAC) to store carbon as well as produce fuels and products will become increasingly necessary to return atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to safe levels.

And while bioenergy and the broader bioeconomy has been beset with naysayers and skeptics as well as its own growing pains – growing the role of ultra-low carbon biofuels, biobased heat, power, and cooling as well as biobased products and chemicals – are crucial to meeting these targets.

Biomass is the most flexible renewable resource, providing baseload power, cooling, heating and power (CHP), fuels and other applications. It can also play a complementary role to intermittent renewables and, therefore, should be embraced by the renewable power sector as well as industrial sectors. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), bioenergy will continue to dominate the growth in renewables, mostly from its use in both heat and transportation fuels. Today, modern bioenergy is responsible for 50 percent of total renewable power use. IEA distinguishes between “modern” bioenergy and traditional uses of biomass, such as wood burning cookstoves.

Addressing thermal (heating and cooling) needs, which account for 52 percent of global energy consumption, is where bioenergy will play a critical role, according to the agency. Additionally, liquid transportation fuels will likely be a continued application for biofuels into the foreseeable future.  While IEA expects that biofuels will account for only around 4 percent of transportation fuels in 2023, this is still nine times higher than the use of electricity in transportation, according to the IEA’s projections.

Recently, Kimmo Tiilikainen, minister of the environment, energy and housing of Finland, and Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, wrote an op-ed about the importance that a modern bioeconomy will play in decarbonizing the energy system.  Bioenergy, they state, is currently a “major blind spot in the global energy debate,” despite the fact that “modern bioenergy is a sustainable solution while contributing to energy diversification and security.” Both Tiilikainen and Birol point to a needed acceleration in investments and deployment of sustainable bioenergy sources.

And while bioenergy has been dogged by no shortage of controversy, Tiilikainen and Birol call for policymakers and stakeholders to hold a reasoned discussion where individual bioenergy supply chains are assessed separately in consideration to relative reductions in greenhouse gases, as well as other environmental and social impacts.

In building a new “circular carbon economy,” carbon cannot be seen as a waste product, but indeed as a commodity to be valued.  In valuing carbon, through a price on carbon, we will see further investment in ultra-low carbon biofuels, biobased chemicals and products, as well as nascent technologies that will store carbon emissions from bio-refineries, such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Looking towards 2050, if we overshoot the 1.5°C target, carbon negative technologies, such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECSS) become even more critical. While BECCS is not a widely deployed technology, it is technically feasible. Biomass is the only renewable resource and technology we have that can to simultaneously produce a variety of renewables while removing carbon from the atmosphere, both through its growth as well as CCS.

The next decade will be critical for ensuring a safe and habitable planet. Will at last the bioeconomy take up the challenge?

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