Renewable Matter # 2 / Numero #2

Rockström, 'Biomaterials: A Viable Alternative to Fossil Fuels'

The Finite Nature of our Planetary Resources, the Gravity of the Effects of Climate Change, the New Technological Paradigms That Keep us from Surpassing Nature's Limits. A Conversation with the Author of the Latest Report to the Club of Rome.

by Emanuele Bompan, interview with Johan Rockström

To identify and quantify planetary limits so that human activity does not cause unsustainable environmental mutations. This is the aim of the research carried out by Johan Rockström, Professor in Environmental Science and Sustainability at the University of Stockholm and Executive Director of the prestigious Stockholm Resilience Centre, one of the main research centres on the planet’s resilience. 

His research on limits started in 2009 through the analysis of nine parameters beyond which humanity should not venture in order to avoid tipping points, catastrophic and almost irreversible transformations. These limits include the thinning of the ozone layer, loss of biodiversity, climate change, chemical contamination, ocean acidification, change in the use of soil, flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, aerosols. This extremely sophisticated study provided Rockström with a complex and organic vision of planetary macro-transformations. His research is published in Bankrupting Nature (Routledge, 2012). Renewable Matter met him in Sweden to talk about planetary limits, starting from matter itself.

 

Our ecological footprint surpasses the Earth’s absorption capacity. One of the less known elements of the planetary equation is the impact of the extraction of many raw materials. 

“Raw matter, from aluminum to rare earth, is strategically important, even when not directly correlated to the planet’s stability. If we emptied all these mineral reserves there would not be serious implications for the planet’s stability, with the exception of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal, Ed), which are directly correlated to climate change and Earth’s stability.

However, from a scientific point of view, things are very clear: every single report that we analyze shows an increase in resource exploitation and expropriation due not only to the scarcity of some mineral reserves, but also to the increasing global demand for raw materials. Many of these materials can be recycled or reused. According to the European Resource Efficiency Platform, a platform that promotes a sustainable use of raw materials, there is ample space to rethink the reuse of these commodities in the productive system. It is therefore essential to make the efficient use of raw materials a priority in development policies.”

 

However, if we introduce into the equation the negative externality of the impacts of the extractive sector – leaving aside fossil fuels – we will notice how the exploitation of raw materials has a direct impact on planetary limits, in terms of water contamination, deforestation and emissions. 

“Without a doubt deforestation, which is a fundamental problem in terms of absorption of CO2 emissions, is strongly incentivized by the continuous research for new types of minerals such as zinc and copper. Let’s just bear in mind the impact of the extractive sector in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and in Canada in the case of tar sands: the extractive sector remains a sector with important consequences and a series of domino effects. However, I would like to stress that in some developed economies sufficient regulation exists that monitors the impacts of the extractive sector.”

 

In your book, you analyze in detail the role of another primary economic sector, agriculture, which, together with forestry, contributes to the production of nutritional commodities but also, in a growing trend, to industrial production: from energy (biofuels) to materials (bioplastics, wood, material derived from residues). Don’t you think that we might be shifting the use of agricultural soil too much towards non-food destinations, the result being an excessive extension of arable soils to the detriment of forests and prairies, together with a potential risk to food security in the least developed countries – as we witnessed during the 2008 price crisis?

“Our systems of analysis show that at a global level we have reached the point of no return for the expansion of agricultural soil. It is not possible to further increase the cultivated surface. These dramatic conclusions are confirmed by several studies, including research by Jonathan Foley (Director of the Institute on the Environment, IonE, of University of Minnesota, Ed), by UNEP and so on.

There is very little fertile land that can be converted into agricultural areas. This clearly shows that a rapid expansion of biofuels cannot happen. We cannot use corn to produce ethanol, subtracting it from food consumption. However, biomaterials can become a sustainable and important resource, also in terms of replacing many fossil fuel derivatives such as plastics. In this respect, Italy is playing a leading role, using non-food plants to create bioplastics. There isn’t a black and white situation, it is more nuanced. 

Today we need to ask ourselves specific questions: are we risking not producing enough food for the least developed areas of the planet? Are we seriously considering the threat of the effects of climate change? In the next few years, drought and extreme weather phenomena will produce bigger and bigger shocks in agricultural production. With this in mind we need to consider carefully how to adapt agriculture to biomaterials.”

 

The issue of fossil fuels remains. They are the main energy source and have the most impact, both in environmental and health terms. What strategy should we use for a phase-out from oil and coal?

“All analysts today agree that we can gradually live without fossil fuels, thanks to solar, wind, hydro and geothermic alternatives. Solar energy today has more and more competitive costs. Nuclear energy can also play a role in the transition, although it is not a solution. Finally, to reduce the effect of emissions we have to consider storing CO2 and incrementing biomass as carbon-sink methods. From a technological point of view, we need to invest in research and development of those technologies that are efficient in storing energy, in fuel cells and in electric vehicles. 

Furthermore, 30% of reduction in per capita consumption must come from energy efficiency. There is no doubt this will be an important part of the general strategy to move beyond fossil fuels. It is a strategy that includes multiple solutions and technologies, that need to operate in an integrated way. At a European level, we need an ambitious energy scheme that can lead this transformation by controlling energy flows. As of today, we are lacking this collaboration in the Union, but we hope to see it tomorrow.”

 

The missing variable to preserve planetary limits is therefore politics. We are missing an international vision even in relation to the challenge of climate change. In your book Bankrupting Nature you express an articulated critique of those obstacles that are blocking a global deal to stop CO2 emission, from lobbies to climate change deniers. 

“We find ourselves in a very discouraging situation. We have up to 5 to 10 years to stop the increasing curve of CO2 emissions. This cannot happen without an urgently needed international deal. Obviously in Paris (in December 2015, when 193 nations will try and reach an agreement on climate, after the Copenhagen failure in 2009, Ed) we will not get a binding agreement, but in 2014 we have seen big actors such as the USA and China show their willingness to reduce their own emissions. We are hopeful that this time we can at least reach an agreement.”

 

Photo © M. Axelsson/Azote