Humanity, climate change and biogas opportunities: a lacking sense of urgency
October 22, 2019
David Newman founded and leads the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association UK since 2015 which works to promote the bioeconomy in the UK. He is also President of the World Biogas Association since November 2016, co-author of the report “Global Food Waste Management, an Implementation Guide for Cities” published in May 2018 by the WBA with C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. He contributed to the 2019 WBA report the Global Potential of Biogas.
Disclaimer: Holland Circular Hotspot publishes opinions on CE from a wide range of perspectives in hopes of promoting constructive debate about consequential questions about Circular Economy.
The time to talk about climate change has expired
Humanity is an enormous success story and in our tendency to concentrate our minds on the threats and challenges we face, we tend to forget just what a fantastic time it is to be alive. Every index of Human development is positive: we have doubled our life expectancy in 200 years; widened the access to health care and education across the globe to almost everyone; we are wealthier than ever before even though that wealth is poorly distributed; violence (which dominates our headlines) represents today a tiny percentage of the violence to which we were subjected even just 100 years ago. We are connected as never before and free to move around the globe as never before. All this has happened while we have eliminated famine, reduced poverty and hunger and grown the world’s population from around 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion today.
The world is actually a fairly safe, healthy place to live and we should rejoice each day that we are alive now and not in the flea ridden, plague infested, violent war-torn 17th century (or any century before that).
But Humanity is also a rapacious beast. We have almost eliminated all competition to the Earth’s resources- whether they be indigenous tribes, large mammals or even insects- with a continuous and vicious brutality. And we have raped the Earth’s resources to the extent that we now need two Earths to supply our appetites. We torture animals that we eat without mercy, breeding them for slaughter, with little care for their feelings and family lives. Animals have feelings too.
While doing all this we have burnt wood, coal, oil, gas to produce heat and energy in such quantities that now we have 550 billion tonnes in excess of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have cut forests, desertified vast areas and created sterile zones, in which nothing now lives.
And this is causing a dramatic change in our climate.
The IPCC report of August 2019 has highlighted what is the dramatic effect of poor land use on our climate and how this threatens food supplies. Their 2018 report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC highlighted the challenge we face in keeping global warming within limits agreed in Paris in 2015. We are, frankly, losing that fight.
The IPCC has shown what this will mean for our lives, but even without the scientists we have ourselves experienced the heat waves of 2018 and 2019 in person, and know what this means. Japan during the month of August had (at the time of writing) suffered 57 deaths and 18,000 people hospitalised due to the high temperatures. And today, we have air conditioning!! These are signs of things to come and the future is not bright.
Yet we need to be optimistic simply because we know Humanity has the resources to resolve climate change. Just as we wiped out smallpox and (virtually) polio, we can when we choose, achieve almost anything- sending Man to the Moon 50 years ago and bringing him back again, quite an incredible feat in a time before computers.
Those of you who are older will recall the crisis caused around the opening of the ozone layer back in the 1980s. This was caused by CFC gasses, which damaged the ozone layer, leading to an increase in the intensity of UV radiation from the Sun. We solved that by banning CFCs and signing up to the Montreal Protocol.
Banning CFCs and signing up to the Montreal Protocol. Source: https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/10824
We solved acid rain: sulphur dioxide from coal burning power stations across Europe and the USA rained on Scandinavian and Canadian forests, destroying them. We enforced reductions of sulphur dioxide emissions again in the late 1980s. We stopped pouring sewage and other wastes into our rivers, which were open waste dumps as late as the 1980s. And we have committed to managing our waste correctly, recycling it and ensuring it is not a health hazard.
The point is that the international community, when it works together, can implement solutions to challenges to Human well-being. And for climate we have been working on this since 1992, the first Rio de Janeiro conference on sustainable development when we created the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a forum of scientists to report on climate change developments. So we have the legal frameworks, what we don’t have is the sense of urgency.
There are several reasons why urgency is lacking.
- The petroleum industry has done a fantastic job in lobbying for the status quo. If you were to say today that this industry, known to be destroying the climate, actually receives some $5.3 trillion in tax breaks, subsidies and incentives (some 6.5% of global GDP) no one would believe you. We are paying for this industry to destroy our climate not just in buying the oil, gas, it produces- but in subsidising the production of that same oil and gas. This industry spends around $200 million a year to support its lobbying, and it works. Politicians are bought off around the globe and help promote policies contrary to the public interest.
- Fossil fuels, because they have been heavily subsidised, have been cheaper than renewable energy until very recently. This makes deployment of renewables difficult. Things are changing, but it is a slow process and by 2050 fossil fuels (unless we move fast) will still account for 85% of global energy production.
- Fossil fuels are available 24/7. You can burn them any time, anywhere and the ease with which they can fuel heat for our buildings, fuel our cars, airplanes, ships, and industries, makes them hard to substitute. You don’t need to rely on the wind or sunshine or a river to flow to produce energy.
So where does this leave the biogas industry?
The WBA report issued this year, the Global Potential of Biogas, shows what a dynamic and growing industry this is. There are around 50 million small-scale digesters supplying gas to farms, communities and households across the globe, mainly in developing countries. The added value of the slurry or digestate they produce for farming in especially arid areas almost outweighs the value of the energy produced.
Around another 130,000 larger scale digesters are operating across the world, and the Netherlands is one of the leaders both in producing biogas and biomethane nationally and in exporting technologies. Our market report on the Netherlands shows more. These plants globally are treating many feedstocks including farm wastes, domestic food waste, sewage, crops and agro-industrial wastes.
Well not really. Our report shows that despite the technological maturity of the biogas sector, we are only capturing some 2% of the global potential of biogas. The report uses a sophisticated mathematical model (being adopted by the IEA in future projections of biogas use) to estimate what could be achieved given certain circumstances.
For example, were we to collect and treat 70% of the manure from 1.69 billion animals kept as livestock (ie housed, such as pigs, chickens, cattle) we could produce enough gas to supply the current demand of India and China combined. Were we to capture some 77.5% of sewage in urban areas, we could produce enough electricity to supply some 27 to 38 million people. Were we to capture available domestic food waste in urban areas that could be readily intercepted we could produce enough gas to supply Germany.
WBA members from the Netherlands such as DMT are already at the cutting edge in getting technologies rolled out globally to upgrade biogas into high quality biomethane suitable for the grid and as a transport fuel. Plants such as Meerlanden lead the way in using food waste not only to produce biogas, biomethane and heat, but also Co2 for the drinks industry and water recycled for washing public roads.
Achieving the amounts of renewable energy production the report quotes, would reduce overall GHG emissions by some 10-13%. There are few other industries that can achieve this dramatic fall in emissions so quickly and with technologies available now.
The report lays out the policies we need to be able to reach these targets- above all cutting subsidies to fossil fuels but also looking at the waste streams cities and farms produce and stopping them going to landfill or worse, to open dumping.
The WBA will be working over the coming weeks with the UNFCCC to drive home these messages and highlight the support the industry needs to help us achieve our climate change targets and what we can do to help the climate process But it is more than climate change- it is about creating new employment, improving the quality of farming and soils, reducing waste leaking into the environment, improving air quality, and improving energy independence especially in areas unlikely to be connected to national grids.
I want to emphasise to readers that the time to talk about climate change has expired. Actually it expired about 20 years ago but still we go on running around in diesel and petrol cars, burning oil and gas to heat our homes, throwing food waste into landfills. Indeed the Netherlands, while ahead in much, is certainly far behind other countries when it comes to meeting the Paris targets and needs to up its game fast. Renewables in 2017 accounted for little more than 10% of all energy consumption in the Netherlands. This just shows how much even advanced, climate-conscious countries have to do to meet their international commitments under the Paris agreement. Biogas can help make a step change now, and the industry in the Netherlands should be lobbying hard for this to happen.
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