What could be a solution here? The most prevalent approach is to develop comprehensive sustainability indicator systems to identify consequences of land use changes. But so far, it has proven very difficult to develop consistent and harmonised systems that are also applicable. Especially because dilemmas arise when such indicators intrinsically oppose each other. Apart from this, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in Europe led to the development and establishment of various biomass certifications on the market that also request compliance with sustainability criteria. However, the application of strict sustainability criteria for biomass also means that not enough biomass can be used to replace the fossil feedstock, which in turn has significant impacts on climate protection, biodiversity, and food security.
Nevertheless, there is a completely new and surprising solution, an “out of the bio-box thinking”, by expanding the frame of reference. The bioeconomy has never been an end in and by itself, it has never been propagated for its own sake. Rather, the bioeconomy was promoted to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the areas of fuels, chemicals, and materials by replacing the fossil economy. The carbon needed for these sectors should then no longer be taken from fossil sources in the soil, but instead through plants straight from the atmosphere. Over the past decade however, it has become clear that the bioeconomy cannot achieve this without seriously compromising food security and biodiversity. For this reason, we also see a European bioeconomy policy that acts very cautiously and focuses primarily on biogenic waste streams.
Fortunately, new technologies have been developed in the last ten years that represent further alternatives to fossil carbon. In the transportation sector, electric mobility and hydrogen fuel cells are promising options for future mobility. For the chemical and material industries, CO2 utilisation (Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU)) and plastic waste recycling represent significant alternative carbon streams that can and already do substitute additional fossil carbon. The bioeconomy is no longer alone. Together, all three renewable carbon sources – biomass, CO2 utilisation, and recycling – can replace the entire fossil system.
With the introduction of chemical recycling, the limitations of mechanical recycling can be overcome so that almost all waste streams can be used as a carbon source. The use of CO2, with the help of green hydrogen from renewable energy sources, brings significant advantages over biomass due to considerably higher land efficiency and the option to utilise non-arable land such as deserts. This can substantially reduce the pressure on natural ecosystems. Finally, CO2 use fits perfectly with the emerging hydrogen economy.
So, the question on how to deal with sustainable trade-offs of the bioeconomy has a surprising answer: expand the reference system to all alternative carbon sources. A new, comprehensive strategy for sustainable chemicals and materials must include the long-term carbon demand that still exists after extensive decarbonisation of the energy sector. Furthermore, it needs to show how this carbon demand can be covered in the most sustainable way possible – and what role the bioeconomy will play in this, in different regions, for different applications and technologies.
Most certainly, the bioeconomy will continue to play an important role, short as well as long term. There will always be biogenic material flows that can only be used outside the food sector. There will be areas that can produce additional biomass without any competition with the food supply. There will be special fine chemical molecules that can be best produced from biomass. And in addition to thermo-chemical and chemical-catalytic processes, biotechnology including synthetic biology will continue to develop rapidly and make the use of biomass ever more efficiently. Biotechnology is not limited to biomass but will also play an important role in CO2 utilisation and enzymatic recycling.
By expanding the reference system, we properly integrate the bioeconomy into a long-term strategy for future carbon demand in the material sector. This facilitates what we call carbon management, which is an overarching challenge of the future and could serve as an excellent framework for constructive discussions between all stakeholders. What is the long-term carbon demand of chemicals and materials after the energy sector has been largely decarbonised? And how can this demand be met as sustainably as possible, including all alternative carbon sources? What is required here is an overarching carbon management strategy that also takes specific regional and application-related features into account. Which simultaneously applies the same sustainability requirements to all renewable carbon streams. Such a strategy does not yet exist, but it is indispensable if we want to shift towards renewable chemicals, materials, and products.
This is the only way to develop a realistic strategy to completely substitute fossil carbon and thus tackle the climate problem at its root.
Renewable carbon strategies
nova-Institute is a private and independent research institute, founded in 1994; nova offers research and consultancy with a focus on the transition of the chemical and material industry to renewable carbon. What are future challenges, environmental benefits and successful strategies to substitute fossil carbon with biomass, direct CO2 utilisation and recycling? What are the most promising concepts and applications? We offer our unique understanding to support the transition of your business into a climate neutral future. Our subjects include feedstock, technologies and markets, economy and policy, sustainability, communication and strategy development. nova-Institute has more than 40 employees. www.nova-institute.eu
This paper and more publications are available at www.renewable-carbon.eu/publications
Michael Carus, CEO nova-Institute