At the December 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, President Obama committed the United States to “cutting our emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020, and by more than 80 percent by 2050,” relative to 2005 emissions of nearly 6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents (per the EPA). To see through on this commitment, the United States must look for innovative technological solutions to reducing emissions, since these can simultaneously create jobs and economic growth.
Industrial biotechnology can help manufacturers and producers reduce emissions of both greenhouse gases and many other pollutants. A recently published report by WWF, “Industrial Biotechnology: More than Green Fuel in a Dirty Economy,” envisions a biobased economy in which production systems rely on natural biological processes to transform sustainable, renewable raw material inputs or waste from other processes into energy and finished goods. In this biobased economy, industrial biotechnology could reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions between 1 billion and 2.5 billion tons per year by 2030, or roughly 16 to 41 percent of current U.S. emissions, according to a report published by the WWF.
Industrial biotechnology reduces emissions because it enables manufacturers to replace petroleum with renewable resources, and it allows them to increase energy efficiency and create fewer byproducts. Biotech-enabled processes that use enzymes can avoid use of toxic feedstocks and processing reagents, which in turn minimizes toxic wastes. The natural fermentation abilities of microbes can produce acids, alcohols, lipids and oils, which can be used as ingredients in liquid biofuels, biochemicals, and biomaterials.
Industrial biotechnology is already used in a number of industries and everyday products, such as detergent, paper and textiles. Through energy and process efficiencies, industrial biotechnology applications currently reduce emissions globally by 31 million tons of CO2 each year, equal to the emissions of 5,400 cars. If industrial biotechnology applications were used as widely as possible just in these industries, we could avoid an additional 52 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions annually, according to the WWF.
Industrial biotechnology is used most widely in biofuels production. The WWF suggests that rapid adoption of advanced biofuels, to meet 20 percent of transportation fuel demand by 2030, could save 1 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions each year. By comparison, the fossil fuels we burn for transportation in the United States produce nearly 1.9 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, or nearly one-third of all U.S. emissions.
U.S. companies lead the world in developing advanced biotechnology for biofuels and in imagining new renewable resources to produce them – from crop residues, energy crops and fast-growing trees, to algae and even directly from sunlight and CO2. And they’re applying the same science to produce chemicals and plastics from renewable resources.
Polylactic acid (PLA) produced by microbes can be heated to form a plastic that has qualities similar to petroleum-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Compared to PET, PLA uses 30 to 50 percent less fossil-fuel energy and results in CO2 emissions that are 50 to 70 percent lower. Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) used as a substitute for hydrocarbon-based polystyrenes can completely eliminate CO2 equivalent emissions, even resulting in carbon sequestration. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions from replacing petrochemicals with biobased materials could reach 668 million tons CO2 equivalent by 2030, according to WWF.
An added benefit of such biobased plastics is that they can be recycled or composted. In aerated composting, PLA degrades completely within weeks, whereas hydrocarbon-based plastics remain indefinitely, and PHA is also readily biodegradable, according to the EPA.
Developing and deploying this technology would do more than just reduce U.S. pollution. It would create truly green jobs and help the United States maintain competitiveness in clean and efficient manufacturing.
Production of biobased plastics and chemicals has already created as many as 40,000 jobs, according to a recent white paper from the Biotechnology Industry Organization. If biobased production grew to 20 percent of the current chemical and plastic sector, it could create tens of thousands of additional jobs. Building biorefineries for advanced biofuels could create more than 200,000 permanent jobs by 2022, according to a 2009 study by Bio Economic Research Associates.
Meeting our environmental goals is consistent with creating truly green jobs and maintaining U.S. economic growth through deployment of technology innovations. Industrial biotechnology companies remain committed to these goals. These technologies and their full range of benefits will be on display at the 2010 BIO International Convention in Chicago.
Brent Erickson is Executive Vice President of Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial & Environmental section.