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Availability of Vital Renewable Energy Source at Risk From Climate Change

Biofuel Research Concept

According to new research, as global temperatures rise, 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.

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.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05055-8

This research was carried out by an international team of researchers in the UK, China, and Spain.

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  • As CO2 levels rise plant growth accelerates. Greenhouse owners sometimes add CO2 to the air in their greenhouses to increase the rate of growth.

    As temperatures rise, more water evaporates from the oceans, and that water will precipitate somewhere. Higher temperatures actually strengthen monsoonal flow, which results in more summer rain as it sucks humid air off the ocean, lifts it high over the land, and causes rain. Monsoonal flow is the reason for the recent Las Vegas flooding.

    Based on studies of tree rings, the US southwest has periodic "megadroughts" like the one it now faces. The last one wasn't because of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, so why must that be the case now?

    I live in North Carolina, at about the same latitude as Los Angeles(35 degrees). It's been raining plenty, there's lots of plant growth as my lawn proves. I actually use biomass to heat my home. I have a wood fueled furnace, that keeps me in hot water during the winter. My trees are growing like crazy. Despite my anthropomorphic climate change skepticism, I'm greener that the vast majority of Americans.

    I don't see a problem, at least not most places. If plant growth is being slowed in some places, it is because of lack of water, not CO2, or high temperatures.

    Biomass is fine on a small scale, particularly burning wood that would otherwise rot, but it is not a desireable large scale solution. Rural land should be used to grow food, not fuel, or left wild whenever possible.

    What is needed in the energy field is large scale development of many different designs of Molten Salt Reactors, fast, and thermal spectrums, burners, and breeders, large, and small, thorium-uranium, and uranium-plutonium fuel cycles. Between MSRs, V2G, and decentralization of the grid the energy problem is easily soluble.

    An attitude similar to the SpaceX first principles design philosophy must be used. Set the goal of replacing fossil fuels for most uses, and then let engineers have the resources, and freedom to solve the problem, without the interference of know nothing politicians.

  • From the linked article:
    "However, the detrimental effects of climate change on crop yields may reduce the capacity of BECCS and threaten food security."

    It appears that they haven't considered that the major agricultural zones will shift towards the poles if Earth continues to warm and crop yields begin to drop, as they claim. However, the reason that the hot Amazon basin is being de-forested is that it has proven to be good for growing corn and soy, despite the lateritic soil being of less fertility than the deep organic-rich soils of prairies.

    Computer models are of academic interest, and can even be useful if they are validated. However, relying on unvalidated models tends to provide erroneous results that reflect the preconceptions and unstated assumptions of the modelers. Models are most useful in understanding the complex relationships between all the different interacting variables, and allowing the exploration of different scenarios. However, if models are built from what are thought to be First Principles, there is a great risk that some unknown relationships will be left out, or improperly parameterized, and thus fail when inputs (assumed scenarios) are changed. Future climate is too important to rely on unvalidated computer climate models.

    If any of the numerous predictions about climate were to actually appear to be likely to come true in the near future, we could invest more heavily in thermonuclear fusion research, in a Manhattan-like program. In the meantime, with about 1 deg C increase in global temperatures over the last century, with most of it occurring before CO2 started to rise significantly, we can probably continue to fund the research at about the current level so that we can afford to forgive student loans.

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University of York

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