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The Apocalypse, bionic leaves and CCM

What would happen if all known fossil reserves went up in flames? Things are very likely to be a lot more apocalyptic than previously modeled according to a letter “The climate response to five trillion tonnes of carbon” recently published in Nature Climate Change by a group of Canadian researchers.

It’s a big number, about a factor 10 larger than the estimated 540 billion tonnes cumulative fossil carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that have already gone up the flue into the blue. It’s five times the current carbon budget for the “better-than-even-chance” of keeping within the 2 oC global warming scenario.

Not that anyone alive today can be certain of what will happen, the Earth’s oceanographic, weather, geological and climate processes and interactions are intrinsically complex. Nor would anyone be around to find out, as it will take until the end of the next century to reach five trillion tonnes at the current fossil burn rate. Sure as hell is reputed to be, it will be a very different place to what humanity has ever experienced, assuming of course that there are any humans left.

Are we on track to avoid this apocalypse? Both Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) and World Bioenergy Association (WBA) have published annual statistical reports outlining the increasing role of renewable energy and bioenergy respectively are playing in meeting global energy needs. The former ”Renewables 2016 Global Status Report” highlights the remarkable growth and investment ploughed into solar and wind.

Though, as Christine Lins, Executive Secretary, REN21 notes that for every US$1 spent on renewable investment, US$4 is spent to ”maintain our dependence” on fossil fuels. In the latter ”WBA Global Bioenergy Statistics 2016” Dr Heinz Kopetz, President of WBA reflected on the Paris COP21 discussions at which nobody was talking about the world’s largest renewable energy source, bioenergy.

Instead, participants were so focused on renewable power, it was “as if we have found the solution to our energy and climate crisis. Unfortunately, energy is not electricity.” Kopetz assessment is that the lack of awareness stems from a lack of good data.

The European Space Agency’s aptly named “Biomass” satellite project will certainly address the data void by filling it with intelligence. Thus it will help write off some debts regarding terrestrial carbon stocks and fluxes.  A welcome finding from WBA’s report for the oft so criticised crop-based biofuels is the almost 1:1 ratio between global land area used to grow the feedstock and the total amount of protein produced as a co-product of global biofuel production (2013). One ha provided 0.995

One ha provided 0.995 tonnes of protein. Mark well this includes crops like sugarcane, sugar beet and palm oil that do not give rise to protein co-products. Yet, one should add. Researchers in Malaysia have found that fermenting palm oil decanter cake with a certain fungus could yield significant levels of protein. Hammering home the message, that biofuels development does not threaten food security but the two are in fact complementary, is a new multi-institutional report “Reconciling food security and bioenergy: priorities for action”, published in GCB Bioenergy. Amongst other things, the authors point out that both objectives can be improved simultaneously through well-designed biofuel and bioenergy development

Amongst other things, the authors point out that both objectives can be improved simultaneously through well-designed biofuel and bioenergy development programmes. A development programme that could include active forest regeneration on previously disturbed forestland. According to the study ”Carbon sequestration potential of second-growth forest regeneration in the Latin American tropics” published in the journal Science Advances, young forest growth sequesters much larger amounts of CO2 than previously thought.

Bionic leaves or solar to bioliquid might perhaps be the ultimate renewable cyborg mash-up. A cross-disciplinary team at Harvard University in the US has created a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. The system they claim can convert solar energy to biomass with 10 percent efficiency, which is far above the one percent seen in the fastest-growing plants. Add to that some solid results from the Icelandic carbon capture and mineralization (CCM) project CarbFix that was recently published in Science – 95 percent of the CO2 injected at the site was mineralized to carbonate minerals in less than two years.

This is all good news for the entire ecosystem of interdependent land-based industries caught in the crosshairs of seemingly mouse finger-happy ”environmental” critics with a click to kill agenda.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 4-2016. Note that as a magazine subscriber you get access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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