Race against time
In official statements, policymakers have left no doubt that the planet is in a bad state and that it’s time for action. “The consequences of climate change are already perceptible around the world, and they are existential,“ stressed German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier back in October, two months before December’s COP24 climate conference in Katowice. There the aim is to take concrete measures to limit global warming as close as possible to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels by 2030 in a bid to avoid disastrous droughts, storms, migration, hunger, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, spread of mosquito-borne diseases and loss of biodiversity.
In speeches ten years ago, German politicians promised to reduce annual emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases by 40% by 2020 compared to levels of CO2 equivalents (CO2eq) measured in 1990. So far the country has cut those emissions by around 28%. Compared to other EU member states and the rest of the world, that’s quite a bit.
Five minutes to midnight
According to a special report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “it’s high time to act, because damage is accumulative and not reversible.” It warns that the projected rise from currently 1° C to 1.5° C will occur ten years earlier than previously projected. With reports of a 2017 record high of 53.5 billion tonnes (gigatonnes, Gt) of CO2eq dispersed into the atmosphere, the panel stresses the situation demands drastic and rapid counteractions. To hit the under-1.5° target, says the IPCC, we now have to achieve a decrease of 45% or more in CO2 levels compared to 1990 by 2030, and zero emissions by 2050. “It’s no longer about the what but about the how. The scientific verdict is clear: global emissions must be halved by 2030 if we want to stand a chance of remaining well below 2° C,” comments Johan Rockström, the designated director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
However, a research team headed by Laure Resplandy reported in late October that ocean heat uptake is actually over 60% higher than the IPCC’s highest estimates. This suggests our planet is more sensitive to emissions caused by the combustion of fossil resources than previously thought (Nature, doi: s41586-018-0651-8). Those results were backed up by a study that found Greenland’s ice sheet is melting faster than at any point in the last 350 years. “Melt increases nonlinearly with rising temperatures,” writes lead author Luke Trusel in Nature (doi: s41586-018-0752-4). Other authors predict that sea warming above the 1.5° C threshold will reduce Polar and Atlantic cod populations by up to 90%.
The solution? Bioeconomy!
What does this mean in concrete terms? Even if consumers across Europe would reduce their individual CO2 emissions by 50% by reducing airline travel, meat consumption, car travel, etc., that would lower annual emissions by just 2.15 Gt. As the IPCC projects a 42–58 Gt cut in emissions is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°, completely new paths to carbon-neutral production in industry and agriculture are required. In 2012, the EC took the first step towards this kind of new production paradigm when it launched its Bioeconomy Strategy. Since then, biotech SMEs have developed a huge array of technologies to reduce CO2 emissions through enzymatic conversion of plants and other renewable resources into chemicals, plastics or biofuels. The bio-based processes complement non-biological solutions such as solar cells that effectively produce sustainable energy. Besides climate change, sustainable biotechnologies are also addressing other global threats, including marine plastic, new protein sources for a rapidly growing population, and crops with features tailored to climate change.
At the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and Bioeconomy (EFIB) in Toulouse (30 Sept. –2 Oct.), which is the most important meeting for the emerging new industry in Europe, the CEO of the UN’s Global Compact Lise Kingo reiterated that its high time to replace the unsustainable way we live, move, produce, consume and throw away by switching to a circular bioeconomy. “We are facing a future in which there is more plastic garbage than fish in our oceans. More than eight million tonnes of plastic waste are added each year. They damage more than 400 species, and are found in the stomachs of sea birds, whales and fish,“ she said, adding that “around three billion people source their protein from the sea (so) we have to give up our usual way of doing business immediately!“ She also told 500 industry representatives, policymakers and investors at the event that “we can turn global threats into business opportunities”.
Biotech’s massive potential
Some of the biotechnologies showcased by SMEs and chemistry giants at the EFIB impressively demonstrated how biotech solutions could offer huge market chances while helping the environment. French-based Carbios SA for example is tackling the growing problem of plastic pollution. To date, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste have entered the oceans – about 90% of that from landfills in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Carbios, which will begin construction of a demonstration plant next year, has invented a technology that could help revolutionise the production and recycling of one of the most common plastics found in our oceans – polyethlene terephthalate (PET). As presented by deputy CEO Martin Stephan at the EFIB, the process is based on engineered cyanobacterial enzymes that allow the complete depolymerisation of PET to monomers. These can then subsequently be used to polymerise 100% native PET from PET waste. In other words, Carbios’ process makes the plastic a valuable resource that is worth collecting, even in countries without collection systems. According to Ward Mosmuller, DSM’s EU Affairs Director, this fits with the Commission’s new focus on circular zero-waste end products.
Carbios’ technology is set to support the €2bn initiative “Clean Oceans”, which was launched in October by the European Investment Bank (EIB), German Development Bank (KfW) and Agence Française de Developpement (AfD). It’s dedicated to sustainable solutions aimed at reducing marine plastic. An EC proposal to ban the top 10 single-use plastics that contribute to marine litter by 2021 – and to improve PET bottle collection – received backing from MEPs in October. Under its rules, producers would have to partially cover the costs of waste management and cleanup, as well as add labels on how to dispose of the packaging properly. If established, the ban might rock the US$375bn plastics packaging market, which provides 15 million jobs and is currently growing at 5% annually.
However Michael Carus, founder and Managing Director of consultancy nova-Institute, says the ban would hurt bioplastics producers who’ve established alternative production methods for PET and other plastics made from plant sugars, which lead to polymers with better CO2 footprints than those currently made by the petrochemicals industry.
Another exhibiting startup company at the EFIB startup village, German-based b.fab GmbH (Dortmund), makes platform chemicals through fermentation of formate, providing sustainably produced chemical building blocks to the chemical industry. According to CEO Frank Kensy, b.fab uses the feedstock as a central mediator to bind and store CO2 and H2 in liquid form. The process begins with the electrochemical conversion of (atmospheric) CO2 and H2 (from water) to formate using renewable (solar) energy. Harnessing synthetic biology, b.fab designs specific pathways for formate conversion into value-added chemicals. Also noteworthy was a pitch by Magellan Life Sciences, which wants to replace sugar with a recombinantly produced protein sweetener from a non-cultivatable African fruit. Replacing carbohydrates with the protein is expected to help prevent common sugar-related diseases like diabetes.
A whole lot of lip service
Following an internal two-year process of negotiations, discussions and review involving several DGs, the European Commission in October published a 14-point bioeconomy action plan designed to add momentum to its Bioeconomy Strategy. In the process, it partly fused the programme with the Circular Economy Strategy pushed in 2015 by DG Growth.
At the EFIB, Deputy Head of DG Research Wolfgang Burtschler confirmed that “implementation of bio-based products and services must come even faster.” He added that “to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and limit global warming to 1.5° C by 2030, as agreed in Paris, we need to cut annual CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030.” That would only work, he said, “if we strengthen our efforts.” Burtschler’s take was that “at the moment, Europe is breathing with two lungs – those of the Western and Eastern EU member states.“ Climate experts say, however, that because renewable resources are limited, they would be better used in high-tech applications than low-tech ones such as bioenergy generated through agricultural biogas.
Furthermore, Burtschler pointed out that the 14 actions emphasise the importance of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in setting up socially accepted local bioeconomies in rural areas. Burtschler’s and several Commissioners’ key message – that setting up a bio-economy could particularly help farmers, foresters and fishers create a new business focus – led to irritation, however, as it didn’t make it clear that high-(bio)tech was the key driver enabling CO2-neutral conversions.
Back in November, the European Parliament’s Chief Negotiator for Horizon Europe, Christian Ehler, stressed that he doubted “tripling the budget for research into food and natural resources” (to a proposed €10bn)… “should be the priority for a research programme. Is Europe about agricultural subsidies, or would we like to see ourselves eye-to-eye with Chinese ambitions?” he said. Industry stakeholders were also shocked about the Commission’s communication strategy. They had repeatedly called for a clear commitment towards biotech and the biologisation of the economy. “We must stop marginalising the bioeconomy as an additional agricultural market,” warned BRAIN AG founder Holger Zinke, who is a member of the German Bioeconomy Council.
At the EFIB, however, finance experts, Burtschler and representatives from the Bio-Based Industry Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) agreed that switching from a petro–economy optimised over decades to a sustainable bio(tech)-based circular economy will not come about without ‘massive’ political and financial support. The question is – what exactly does ‘massive’ mean?
Investors look to hard science
“Given the high production costs, it’s still difficult to get paid for a sustainable product,” said Renee Henze, global biomaterials marketing director at DuPont Industrial Biosciences. Felipe Ortega from the European Investment Bank (EIB) stressed at the EFIB that the EC is determined to prioritise the bioeconomy with the launch of a €100m Circular Bioeconomy Investment Fund that’s designed to trigger co-investment. Though stakeholders applauded the approach, many said it would be a drop in the ocean given the minimum €50m cost for a demonstration plant. Other industry stakeholders told European Biotechnology anonymously that although funds are important, a reliable framework for product approval is even more key to investing and commercialisation. “Although there’s strong wording towards establishing a bioeconomy, restrictions for biotechs are rising. Decisionmaking is inconsistent, and appears to be increasingly politically motivated, not science-based,” an industry representative told European Biotechnology. “Most biomass-related innovations – whether involving plants, microbes or enzymes – are strictly regulated.” That creates a climate hostile to innovation. One where investment has been increasingly been put on ice because no one can estimate returns. “We have started to calculate our most innovative products even without the EU market,” confirmed the industry representative. Zinke and industry leaders are calling for incentives allowing the activation of an innovation-oriented capital market ecosytem to help drive the bioeconomy.
Are we talking a carbon tax?
In November, stakeholders that hammered out recent recommendations for the UN Emissions Gap Report called for fiscal reforms to foster the low-carbon transition. “The most effective means of reducing emissions and achieving the Paris climate targets is a high carbon price,” concludes the UN report, which points to the successful implementation of carbon taxes in both Sweden and Switzerland. Currently nearly 90% of CO2 emissions have no adequate carbon price. Experts say reaching the 2° C
target will require carbon-emission tariffs between €34-€68/tonne by 2020. Sweden and Switzerland, however, charge businesses €120 or €80 per tonne CO2 respectively. Most other countries have encountered political hurdles in implementing strict emissions pricing schemes and in reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. However, a carbon tax may become the key driver to investments into the bioeconomy. It provides the ultimate incentive to reduce CO2 emissions. “Change must be financed,” says climate expert Rockström, adding that “the Green Climate Fund needs reliable and substantial contributions from industrialised countries, and at the same time should set strict rules for payments – for example giving only funds to countries that have introduced CO2 pricing.” That could mark the starting point for investments in innovations for reducing emissions – hopefully not only in speeches.