Industrial biotechnology - More than green fuel in a dirty economy? - Exploring the transformational potential of industrial biotechnology on the way to a green economy

Sep 2009

This report concludes that the full climate change mitigation potential of industrial biotechnology ranges between 1 billion and 2.5 billion tCO2e per year by 2030, compared with a scenario in which no industrial biotechnology applications are available. This is more than Germany’s total reported emissions in 1990.
However, the type of emission cuts we pursue from industrial biotechnology and how we achieve them makes a crucial difference. As with most technologies, the potential to achieve sustainability objectives does not automatically translate into such goals being realized.
Some current biotechnology applications reduce emissions but also lead to a high degree of carbon feedback. This is most noticeable when enzymes are used to produce biofuels used to substitute fossil fuels in vehicle engines.
Vehicle biofuel can save large quantities of CO2, but it supports a carbon intensive transport system and further strengthens the social, institutional and cultural dependency on such systems. These reductions are valuable and needed in the short term but risk binding us to future emissions if we don’t pursue further transformation of the economic infrastructure.
Indeed, the production of biofuel will also lead to some very low-carbon feedback mechanisms in the future as bioethanol know-how and resources have paved the way for the development of biorefinery technology, and which has created the technological foundations for replacing oil-based materials with biobased materials.
This report identifies four fundamental dimensions of the contribution of industrial biotechnology: improved efficiency, the substitution of fossil fuels, the substitution of oil-based materials and the creation of a closed loop system with the potential to eliminate waste. As the industry develops and matures there is a possibility that the elimination of oil-based products and closed loop systems will make up the major proportion of the industry’s GHG reduction contribution, although all four dimensions will contribute. There are substantial differences not only between the reduction potential of the four dimensions but also the extent of high and low-carbon feedbacks they create.
The actual impact of industrial biotechnologies on GHG emissions will largely depend upon the overall socio-economic environment and the policy landscape surrounding the dissemination of these technologies. Therefore, for industrial biotechnologies to realize their full GHG emission reduction potential public policies and private sector strategies are important to channel the sector’s growth toward low-carbon paths, while avoiding high-carbon lock-ins that are often attractive due to their potential to deliver short term GHG emission reductions.

By: WWF Denmark

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