“Nothing will happen without the will” – addressing climate change through low-carbon fuels

July 22, 2015 |

Holmgren-072215Condensed from remarks by Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, on receiving the Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology,  from the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

So many people beginning with my mother but including colleagues, professors and many others who have guided me, occasionally kicked me.

Rosalind Franklin said that technology is about making the world a better place.

And she was right. What we do changes the world.

Look at the IPCC report on climate change. Our aim is to keep the climate change effect to within two degrees by 2050. The trick is that we have used up already 65 percent of the carbon budget in order to meet that goal. Right now we are on a path to a 3-4 degree change.

Imagine how old you will be in 2050. I will be 90 and I intend to be here. When we think about climate change we think of it as something that will happen to our grandchildren. But it will happen to us. It is our lives that will be affected, and it is our responsibility to do something about it.

What does a 3-4 percent change look like? It is not about polar bears. It is our ability to adapt that the IPCC says is “highly questionable:” For example, I was born in Colombia and by 2050 it is expected that, with a 3-4 percent change, Colombia will no longer be a coffee-producing country.

It’s a future I cannot accept, and we cannot accept. We have the opportunity to walk a different path, and that is because of biotechnology. We can change the course we are on, and that is why I believe that this will be the Biotechnology Century.

We have to start by recognizing that now and in the future, every carbon molecule matters, every one is a precious resource. We have to keep carbon fossil oil in the ground, and if we put it out we have to keep it out of the air, and if we put it in the air we ned to recycle it.

To say within our carbon budget, 30% all fuels need to be low-carbon. We will need 350 billion gallons per year of low-carbon fuel capacity. That’s 1750 200-million gallons plants. Even if half that is achieved through electric vehicles that would be 875 plants.

The problem we face in deploying biotechnology is crossing the Valley of Death. LanzaTech, for example is 10 years old this year. It takes time. Every time you build a plant it takes 2-3 years, for each step on the path to commercial-scale.

We have to become good at doing this fast, and we have to become used to the idea that with every step it costs more and more as we scale.

We have to take bigger risks. We have to be smarter than the problem and we have to become better risk-takers.

We cannot listen to all the critics and their calls for inaction. Instead we have to remember that any time anyone dared to something different, they were told not to bother, and why not stay on the couch.

There are places in the world already today such as Beijing where schoolchildren don’t need a blue crayon to draw the sky as they see it, because there is the problem of visible pollution as well as the problem of invisible greenhouse gas.

I know it is possible. I grew up in Los Angeles where the sky wasn’t blue in September, but technology has changed that with high-octane gasoline.

Nothing will happen without the will. The effort will all require all of us to become used to taking risks and we will need strong regulation.

We need a headset change because every molecule is precious and we need to recognize that. Carbon is the final frontier, and we will be defined by how we deal with carbon, how we find solutions. We all need to be superheroes.

Thank you.

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