Recently, the small start up company Bio Architecture Lab, reported that they have developed a yeast strain that efficiently converted seaweed to ethanol biofuel. This significant advance in biotechnology achieved a place in the most prestigious scientific journal. Nevertheless, Bio Architecture Lab also announced that they had abandoned their commercial scale facility for producing seaweed biofuel. Looking into it, I have been struck by how the overriding challenges we face in terms of energy provision and climate change seem to be more the political economy issues. We seem to have an astonishing capacity to meet technical challenges  and an equally astonishing capacity to become held up by awkward political economy issues.

My recent post “Could this be a way to scrutinize climate science enough for the skeptics?“, was all about grappling with the controversy over whether or not our climate is at risk from fossil fuel use. This post here is about what it would entail to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Mainstream political opinion professes respect for the warnings from climate scientists such as James Hansen who has told us,

Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.

And yet in terms of what actually gets done, it is obvious that there is no meaningful attempt to avoid our accelerating consumption of fossil fuels. Since the Kyoto agreement was signed, fossil fuel consumption has continued to accelerate by 3% per year just has it has been doing since the 1950s. Continuing along this exponential trajectory would lead to cumulative  emissions of ten trillion tonnes of carbon in just over a century from now and for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to be 8x the preindustrial level (as compared to the 40% increase seen to date). Known recoverable reserves of fossil fuels are enough to sustain that; the only thing that would prevent it from happening is if we choose to leave them in the ground.

The debate about what should or should not be done is encapsulated by Vaclav Klaus’s assertion that , “Freedom, not climate, is at risk”. In general I agree with Vaclav Klaus that we need to avoid interfering in each others’ lives as much as is compatible with overall well being. That however is always going to be a fraught balancing act with contentious value judgments at every point along the way. We need to first assess the arguments as to whether fossil fuels do genuinely pose a risk to the climate and then balance that assessment against the politics and practicalities of doing something about it.  Weighed up against the assessment of warnings about catastrophic climate change is an assessment of how catastrophic it would be to try and wean ourselves off fossil fuels. The leading climate skeptic campaigner Nigel Lawson sums this up when he expresses exasperation about climate change alarmists,

What was clear, however, was that they had no understanding of, or interest in, the massive human and economic costs involved in the policies they so glibly endorse.

Likewise, if Vaclav Klaus is to be believed, only a brutal, miserable, command economy system would leave the fossil fuels in the ground. A vibrant economy that makes the most of all of our individual talents and joys is supposedly inextricably linked to unimpeded consumption of fossil fuels. Is that really true?

Perhaps it helps to view the current debate about carbon dioxide in the light of the historical debates about sanitation. In the 1840s in England there was a heated controversy about provision of sewerage facilities. At the time it was considered by many to be an absurd imposition of central control to move away from simply having people cast their faeces into the street. Today we take effective sanitation for granted in the developed world and view inadequate sanitation as a mark of a failed state not as an exemplification of the laissez-faire ideal. Might we in the future view fossil fuel use as being as unnecessary and noxious as casting faeces into the street?

To my understanding, the crucial measure to effectively induce a transition away from fossil fuels would be a tariff charged on the basis of how much carbon dioxide would come from burning them. That would be what it would take to ensure that much of our fossil fuel reserves were left in the ground and that alternatives were instead brought into existence.  A fossil fuel tariff of that sort would be paid to the country where the fuels were extracted, charged at the point of extraction. That would encourage many countries to sign up to the system because it would provide a local source of revenue (at any rate until it induced adoption of alternative energy sources). If a country did not participate, then participating countries could apply an equivalent tariff on imports from that country based on the fossil fuels used in production.

The effectiveness of such a tariff mechanism has been demonstrated by how in the European Union we have been effectively coerced into producing and paying for beet sugar despite the fact that it costs twice as much as cane sugar. A near 100% tariff on sugar imports has ensured that European sugar production has been nurtured into existence whilst much more efficient cane fields in the Caribbean now lie fallow.

The owners of the fossil fuel reserves have already paid for them. Those owners would be dispossessed by an effective policy that caused the reserves to remain unused. Our current renewable energy policies only become explicable when viewed in the light of the political reluctance to render those fossil fuel assets worthless. Environmentally minded voters are placated with ineffectual “green washing” measures aimed to give the greatest political impact whilst avoiding any threat to the value of fossil fuel assets. The result is rooftop photo-voltaic panels in rain lashed northern England. Perhaps, in order to ensure that fossil fuels do actually get left in the ground, it will be politically necessary to compensate the owners of those fossil fuel reserves. Perhaps only then would we have a hope of introducing the necessary tariff system. If the move away from fossil fuel use became something of a free lunch for the owners of the fossil fuel assets, then perhaps the wind would be taken out of the sails of the climate change denial public relations campaign.

To my mind the key point is that effective measures to ensure a move away from fossil fuels need not entail the sort of command economy horror show that Vaclav Klaus warns us of. Once an effective tariff was in place, the stage would be set for self organizing human ingenuity to rise to the challenge of providing us with alternative energy. That brings us to the wider controversy of whether we do have the potential to provide enough energy without fossil fuels; whether we would indeed successfully rise to that challenge. In principle the energy is there for the taking; every hour the sun radiates more energy onto the earth than the entire human population uses in one whole year. Basically the challenge is how to tap into that abundant energy.

The full scope of the possibilities for renewable energy is too wide to be dealt with here. In this post I want to focus on liquid transportation fuels as an illustrative example that highlights wider issues. The vast bulk of global fossil fuel reserves are in the form of coal. In the past decade, most of the growth in fossil fuel use has been from coal. However the last century was all about oil. Oil provides an extremely convenient source of energy. Diesel for trucks and jet fuel for planes allows economic activity to blossom with a minimal need for infrastructure or political organisation. We have now burned our way through much of our easily recoverable reserves of oil. Exxon Mobil spends a hundred million dollars a day prospecting for new reserves but that is providing ever diminishing returns. A century ago it took one barrel of oil to find and extract a hundred barrels, it now takes thirty. Saudi Arabia still has substantial reserves but the Saudis carefully ration production so we are left relying on reserves elsewhere that are ever more expensive and hazardous to exploit. There has recently been a shift towards mining tar sands for conversion to oil. If environmental considerations do not hold sway, the next step will be large scale production of synthetic liquid fuels from coal. The way we respond to the immediate “peak oil” phenomenon can be seen as a forerunner for our overall approach towards renewable energy.

This brings us back to Bio Architecture Lab’s yeast that are able to efficiently convert seaweed into ethanol. This technology uses wild varieties of seaweed, grown in their native parts of the world on floating supports in the open sea. It requires no farmland nor freshwater and no addition of fertilizer nor pesticides. The byproducts can be used as animal feed and soil improvers. It addresses both climate change and food security issues. Depletion of soil has been described as the most frightening long term threat for humanity. Seaweed provides a way to return phosphates and potassium back from the oceans to our farmland. Whilst ethanol is not the ideal transportation fuel and it can’t be used as jet fuel, the technology to allow fermentation microbes to directly convert any form of carbohydrate (including alginates from seaweed) into diverse types of hydrocarbons is within our grasp. 

Nevertheless this promising technology has been met with a flurry of nay saying. The most damning allegation was that it would take more fuel to cultivate the seaweed  and convert it into fuel than the process produced. A detailed audit revealed that allegation to be unfounded and demonstrated an efficient net yield. The other key allegation was that it would be  impossible to conduct seaweed cultivation on a sufficiently large scale. Current oil consumption is five billion tonnes per year; it would take fifty billion tonnes (dry weight) of seaweed to provide that and that would require a cultivated area of one billion hectares (less than four percent of the ocean surface). Globally, there is over a billion hectares of arable land under cultivation. In the developed world, it takes minimal human effort to work that land. The vast bulk of the economy is left for other activities. Likewise, cultivating seaweed on that scale would be a significant source of jobs and economic activity but would nevertheless be very much a minority activity.

Much of the skepticism about seaweed cultivation has come from the mistaken idea that only the brown seaweeds used by Bio Architecture Lab are relevant for this process and that only certain parts of the oceans are suitable for cultivation of those seaweeds. What Bio Architecture Lab really demonstrated is that yeast can be readily developed to meet any fermentation challenge whatever the carbohydrate composition of the seaweed feed stock. Red seaweeds growing in tropical waters would need a different strain of yeast but the same principle could be applied to rapidly develop such yeast.

Why then has Bio Architecture Lab abandoned its commercial scale seaweed biofuel project? Presumably the financial backers of companies such as Bio Archictechture Lab and Seaweed Energy Solutions were banking on state mediated intervention (such as fossil fuel tariffs) to create an economic incentive for full scale adoption of the technology. That necessary intervention simply hasn’t materialized. Although those companies are small they attracted cutting edge expertise in biotechnology and offshore energy provision. Those people saw the potential of the project, nevertheless, it has recently been argued that there is little sense in converting high value seaweed into less valuable liquid fuel. That argument overlooks the fact that scaling up seaweed production to a market size that swamped all non-fuel demand for alginates would render it irrelevant that the alginate intermediate product is currently far more valuable than liquid fuel. The relevant way to appraise the economics is to view the cost as money spent to keep tar sands in the ground and to build human expertise in a renewable technology that could serve us for future generations.

The broad thrust of the concerns of skeptics such as Nigel Lawson, is that tariffs that increased the cost of fuel would hamstring the global economy. However one of the thorniest issues facing the global economy is unemployment and underemployment.  Advocates for tar sand extraction justify the environmental cost on the basis of what it can do for job creation, digging the stuff up and building the trucks to do so. On that basis, seaweed biofuels would be even “better”. If there is a problem with adopting seaweed biofuel technology, it is that it entails more labour than the fossil fuel alternatives. There is a political appetite for job creation; seaweed biofuels would provide job creation with a necessary purpose. What is more, many of the jobs created would be in coastal communities that are beset by loss of jobs in the fishing and shipbuilding industries.

Of course it is stupid to have wasteful activity just for the hell of it. Our economy does best when we all interact to provide each other with what we want as efficiently as possible. However if the worry is that renewable energy would act as a cost drag, there are other less easily justified cost drags that could be cut out. The EU common agricultural policy currently spends almost £50Bn per year as payments to farmers and landowners. In effect much of that ends up going to increased rents for farmland. Added to that, trade barriers prevent imports of many types of food that can be produced far more efficiently outside of Europe (I mentioned the example of sugar above). We also have a global financial system that has been built (by the global financial system itself) in such a way as to maximize the financial overhead borne by the real economy. In the USA alone, it has been estimated that over a trillion dollars a year could be saved if the financial sector was trimmed down towards functioning as a service for the real economy rather than gathering as much as possible for itself. I think much of the skepticism about renewable energy is actually founded on a naive belief that it would be a blemish in an otherwise pristine and perfectly optimized economic system. I see our current system as something of a mess with plenty of room for improvement and plenty of capacity to accommodate necessary measures such as leaving the fossil fuels in the ground.

Related previous posts:

Could this be a way to scrutinize climate science enough for the skeptics?

Sustainability of economic growth and debt.

To save the environment, target poverty.

Related stuff on the web:

Environmentalism poses a problem for libertarian ideology -Matt Bruenig

Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature -Hansen et al

Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide -Hansen, Stao, Russel and Kharecha

Statoil invests, partners with BAL in macroalgae: How big will big algae be? -biofuelsdigest

Efficient ethanol production from brown macroalgae sugars by a synthetic yeast platform -Enquist-Newman et al -Nature

Bad News: Scientists Make Cheap Gas From Coal -Wired

Marine macroalgae: an untapped resource for producing fuels and chemicals -Wei, Quarterman and Jin- Trends biotech

Large-scale carbon recycling via cultivation and biorefinery of seaweeds for production of biobased chamicals and fuels -ECN

Sea6 Energy

Sea6 Energy Biofuel from the oceans

Unlocking Seaweed’s Next-Gen Crude: Sugar -The New York Times

Seaweed biofuels: a green alternative that might just save the planet -Guardian

Bio Architecture Lab, EcoShift make waves with seaweed-based biofuels -biofuelsdigest

Bio Gives Up on Seaweed-to-Ethanol Effort in Chile -Bloomberg

NLACM leads to changing times at Bio Architechture Lab -biofuels digest

A skeptical look at seaweed ethanol -Alice Friedmann

Who benefits from farm subsidies: farmers or landowners? -CAP

The Beginning of the End of the Fossil Fuel Revolution: GMO_QtlyLetter_3Q14_full (added 22nov2014)