Climate change is putting the availability of biomass fuels and technologies – a vital alternative to fossil fuels – at risk, according to new research.
A new study has found that the window of opportunity to maximize the use of biomass from plants, wood, and waste as a renewable energy source and an alternative to petrochemicals is closing as temperatures rise from climate change.
Published today (September 7, 2022) in the journal Nature and led by researchers at the universities of York and Fudan in China, the study investigated the sustainability of biomass exploitation.
If urgent action is not taken to reduce fossil fuels in favor of bioenergy and other renewables, climate change will decrease crop yields, reducing the availability of biomass feedstocks, according to the researchers. They also say that reducing food production is also likely to incentivize cropland expansion, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from land use change and further accelerating the rate of climate change.
Co-author of the paper, Professor James Clark from the University of York Department of Chemistry, said: “Biomass fuels and feedstocks offer a renewable source of energy and a viable alternative to petrochemicals, but the results of our study act as a stark warning about how climate change will put their availability at risk if we continue to allow global temperatures to rise.
“There is a tipping point where climate change will severely impede our ability to mitigate against its worst effects. Biomass with carbon capture and storage including the manufacture of bio-based chemicals must be used now if we are to maximize its advantage.”
In many assessments of climate mitigation, including the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has been highlighted as a crucial element of the strategy for meeting the target of 2 °C or 1.5 °C warming set out in the Paris Agreement.
The researchers used global data to model the responses of crop yields to rising average temperatures, nitrogen fertilization intensity, atmospheric CO2 concentration, and precipitation. They discovered that if a switch to BECCS is delayed to the second half of this century, biomass production would be largely reduced by climate change. This would result in a failure to achieve the 2 °C goal and jeopardize global food security.
For example, when BECCS is delayed from 2040 to 2060, the scientists found that reduced yields of agricultural residue for biomass technologies would decrease the capacity of BECCS and increase global warming from 1.7 to 3.7 °C by 2200, with a decline in global average daily crop calories per capita from 2.1 million calories to 1.5 million calories.
The scientists calculate that in this scenario the scale of the food trade would need to increase by 80% from 2019 levels in order to avoid severe food shortages in many parts of the developing world worst affected by climate change.
Professor Clark added: “If negative-carbon mitigation technologies relying on biomass could be widely deployed in the short term, there is still hope that we can alleviate global warming and a global food crisis.”
Reference: “Delayed use of bioenergy crops might threaten climate and food security” by Siqing Xu, Rong Wang, Thomas Gasser, Philippe Ciais, Josep Peñuelas, Yves Balkanski, Olivier Boucher, Ivan A. Janssens, Jordi Sardans, James H. Clark, Junji Cao, Xiaofan Xing, Jianmin Chen, Lin Wang, Xu Tang and Renhe Zhang, 7 September 2022, Nature.
This research was carried out by an international team of researchers in the UK, China, and Spain.