Politics / Law, Denmark

Hot tempers and cold, hard realities

01.02.2010

When the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference ended in December with the “Copenhagen Accord”, the final press release claims that the declaration “was supported by a majority of countries, including amongst them the biggest and the richest, and the smallest and most vulnerable” was far from the inspiring wake-up call that many had hoped it would be. It sounded instead like an attempt to put the best face possible on an event where very little went right. After two weeks of debate that often deteriorated into vitriol, the Climate Conference ended with a list of vaguely-worded goals and promises to keep looking at the problem, and a commitment to set up a fund of around US$30bn to help the worst-affected developing countries. But quantified economy-wide emissions targets for industrialised countries were put off until 2020. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer’s clarification that the accord “is a letter of intent, and is not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms” summed up any clear lack of progress. So what does the conference mean in real terms for biotech, which will be a keystone industry in the fight against global warming?

To meet the goals that climate experts agree would limit “dangerous” global warming – the key 2°C threshold rise in temperature considered acceptable – industrialised countries would have to cut emissions by 25-40% within the next ten years and a whopping 80-95% by 2050. In concrete terms, that translates into a maximum of 750,000 megatonnes of carbon in total. Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, human beings have emitted some 500,000 megatonnes, leaving just 250,000 Mt to be divided if we are to avoid the worst of the danger. The real news that emerged from Copenhagen is that this pie is far too small.
Even coming close to those goals is therefore looking increasingly unrealistic. But regardless of what future climate conferences might bring in terms of emissions agreements (and disagreements), one thing is becoming clearer by the day; along with clean-tech like wind and solar power, biotech is set to become a major factor in how we redefine energy consumption. Two fields in particular will play a key role in the process: industrial biotech and biofuel.

The future looks white

Even among groups that traditionally have adopted an anti-industry stance, white biotech is acquiring more and more adherents. For example, a WWF report from last September (see EuroBiotechNews 9-10/2009) backed the sector by saying enzymes have the potential to save between 1-2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030 – around 5% of the total worldwide emissions of the gas in 2007. Overall, says the study, white biotech “could help create a true 21st century green economy.”
The industry agrees, and white biotechnology is rapidly branching out into a wide spectrum of industrialised processes. The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) estimates that by 2015, turnover will have grown to EUR305bn, a tenfold increase compared to 2005, and that around 20% of all chemical production will involve biotech processes. Novozymes CEO Steen Riisgaard thinks that ”we have only taken the very first steps in exploring how biotechnology can help us save energy and water,” but that products from his enzyme-manufacturing firm “reduced global CO2 emissions by about 20 million tons in 2007 alone.”
The added bonus of being able to manufacture products with less energy is that it also reduces the pressure on land-use, ultimately leading to the dedication of more resources to the second great hope for emission reduction – biofuel.
”Bioenergy has established a firm position in the global strategies to combat climate change,” says Josef Spitzer, the Chairman of the upcoming 18th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition scheduled to take place this coming May in Lyon.

Away from petrochemicals

“This position is based on the relative advantages bioenergy has compared to other renewable sources of energy, which are determined by geographical, industrial and socio-economic criteria.” The field’s ability to gain a foothold in the world energy market, however, will continue to depend largely on how well it is able to cope with two important unresolved issues: its competitiveness with traditional energy sources, and its ability to skirt accusations that the industry is stealing food from the mouths of the world’s hungry.
To turn a profit, biofuel producers all over the world continue to rely on government subsidies to make their product attractive. Consumption of biofuels nearly tripled in the EU between 2004-2007, and average subsidies kept pace. To become a viable and attractive means of reducing CO2 emissions, that will have to change. Even though supplies are limited, to compete with oil and other fossil fuels, biofuel must become cheaper.
The furor over the ethical aspects of increased food prices for the world’s poor due to farmers planting seeds to fill fuel tanks instead of stomachs will only truly be solved by moving into second and third-generation biofuels that don’t use foodstuffs as a primary carbon source for the distillation of ethanol.

Keep “Hopen”

The UN Climate Conference ended on a sour note, because the “letter of intent” that is the Copenhagen Accord accomplished very little in terms of binding numbers or concrete steps to for preventing possible disastrous consequences from global warming. Even so, the current threat has been recognised, and trying to defuse it holds promise for certain industries. Markets for biofuels and enzymes will definitely boom. The question is how fast they will make a difference.

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