Sustainable bioenergy can dramatically reduce global carbon emissions #COP21

The COP21 talks in Paris came to a turning-point on Saturday, as an update to the draft agreement was released. Finance appears to be the over-riding issue as we settle in to the second week of the conference – but what about the solutions?

Did you know that more than half of the world’s annual carbon emissions could be prevented over the next 50 years by using sustainable bioenergy?

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According to research by Pacala and Socolow, outlined by the IChemE Energy Centre, 25 billion tonnes of carbon emissions can be prevented from entering the atmosphere – simply by switching from fossil-based petroleum to bioethanol as our primary transportation fuel.

So why aren’t we using it already?

The raw materials used in bioenergy production – food crops like maize and sugarcane – come with a lot of associated challenges. Food crops are by no means guaranteed; a bad season could have a detrimental effect, particularly in developing countries who rely on their crops as a means of livelihood. Concerns about the economical implications for developing countries have already been raised in Paris – and could be a deal-breaker for alternative fuels like bioenergy.

Another concern for bioenergy are bad agricultural practices, such as fertiliser use and unsustainable crop expansions, that will have a negative ecological impact. If crops aren’t farmed correctly, then carbon emissions can actually increase during the production process.

For biofuels to be effective, and to actually save carbon rather than just displace it, we need stringent policies for responsible production.

Bioenergy could play a critical role in stabilising climate change, if conversion of high carbon density ecosystems (forests, grasslands and peat-lands) is avoided and best-practice land management is implemented.

Of course, for chemical engineers, the technology to produce bioenergy is nothing new.

shutterstock_305915477Producing liquid fuel, using a fossil derivative like coal, is a cost intensive process and is only feasible during periods of high oil prices. However, cost is also a concern for bioenergy, pre-treatment technologies used to separate sugars and chemicals from the plant materials are expensive.

The good news is extensive pre-treatment is not necessary to convert biomass materials, lignocellulose and algae, to liquid fuels through thermochemical pathways. The technology to use these materials already exists and has the potential to be cost effective.

It is clear that in order to take steps to reduce carbon emissions globally, and make bioenergy financially sustainable, we must start introducing them now. Bioenergy is still a new technology and on-going research requires regular funding to reach new breakthroughs in process efficiency.

We hope you have beWorld on the edgeen keeping up to date with the on-going climate talks in Paris. As the final push for a decision from the 190 countries takes place this week, let’s make sure we shine a light on chemical engineering – because we truly have a part to play in the climate change debate.

And if you are in Paris you can play your part by participating in the official COP21 side event – Technology solutions for a two degree world. IChemE’s Energy Centre Chair, Stef Simons, will be presenting, as part of an exploration into the existing technologies we can deploy to tackle climate change now.

If you are UK-based and not able to make the Paris event, there will be an evening screening of the side event presentations and panel discussion at IChemE’s London offices. The event is free to attend, open to all and promises to be a lively debate about climate change solutions.