The Zero-Emission Planet: IRENA says “affordable, achieveable”.

March 20, 2017 |

Eliminating Energy-Related Carbon Emissions Possible, New IRENA Study Finds

Since the election of Donald Trump as US President, we’ve heard a great deal less about “reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” from friends of the advanced bioeconomy, but two new studies out this week may rally supporters with striking findings relating to the potential of biofuels to solve perplexing problems in transportation-related pollution.

In Germany the International Renewable Energy Agency released a report finding that “global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by 70% by 2050 and completely phased-out by 2060 with a net positive economic outlook”.

Here’s the bad news. The capex is daunting. $29 trillion between now and 2050.

On the bright side, IRENA notes that “it amounts to a small share (0.4%) of global GDP”.

Further, IRENA found that the investment creates a stimulus that, “together with other pro-growth policies”, will boost global GDP by 0.8% in 2050, and generate new jobs in the renewable energy sector that would more than offset job losses in the fossil fuel industry.

We’re, ahem, left to guess what those growth-oriented policies are, how much of the growth in global GDP relates back to these “growth-oriented policies”, and left to guess also exactly what they might be.  Finally, we’re left to guess whether any government will a) care or b) care enough to implement. But let’s set aside the quibbling, for now.

The current state of renewables

Renewable energy now accounts for 24% of global power generation and 16% of primary energy supply. To achieve decarbonisation, the report states that, by 2050, renewables should be 80% of power generation and 65% of total primary energy supply.

The 5 key targets

According to IRENA, here are the five targets:

  • Renewables need to account for the majority of power generation in 2050
  • Electric vehicles need to become the predominant car type in 2050.
  • Liquid biofuel production must grow ten-fold.
  • High efficiency all-electric buildings should become the norm.
  • Deployment of heat pumps must accelerate and a combined total of 2 billion buildings will need to be new built or renovated.

How to make it happen

According to IRENA, “stronger price signals and carbon pricing can help provide a level playing field” when complemented by other measures, and the report emphasizes the importance of considering needs of those without energy access.

“The Paris Agreement reflected an unprecedented international determination to act on climate. The focus must be on the decarbonization of the global energy system as it accounts for almost two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. “Critically, the economic case for the energy transition has never been stronger. We are in a good position to transform the global energy system but success will depend on urgent action, as delays will raise the costs of decarbonisation,” added Mr. Amin.

The full report can be downloaded here.

New NASA study finds up to 70% aviation carbon reductions for biofuels by looking at engine data

In this study from NASA reported in Nature, a research team found that “compared to using conventional fuels, biofuel blending reduces particle number and mass emissions immediately behind the aircraft by 50 to 70 per cent”. The study sampled the exhaust of engines onboard a NASA DC‐8 aircraft as they burned conventional Jet A fuel and a 50:50 (by volume) blend of Jet A fuel and a biofuel derived from Camelina oil.

Why important, since we’ve heard those “greenhouse gas reductions of 50 percent or greater” figures many times, relating back to sustainable aviation fuels? In this case, it has to do with particular aspect of aviation, that is the nature of the emissions and the altitude they are released at.

It sounds suspiciously like powers that are obtained by X-Men after radiation-induced mutation – but radiative forcing can be a “force multiplier” when it comes to emissions, meaning that aircraft emissions count for anything between 1.2 and 4.7 times their actual weight. The most recent studies we’ve seen focus in on a 1.9 figure.

Accordingly, because of “contrail-induced cirrus clouds” and  “the contribution of black carbon, organic and sulfate aerosols that may act as cloud condensation nuclei and ice nuclei”, aviation-related contributions to what is known as radiative forcing may increase to 3–4 times the year 2000 levels.

Double Up: the aviation carbon opportunity

And that means a double carbon bonanza for biofuels, where carbon is counted.

Impact? If fully accounted for, you could see a biofuel producer looking at making diesel or jet with the same technology — but having a potential double carbon credit. That helps under, say, Low Carbon Fuel Standards, where the carbon credit is directly related back to the emission reduction. Not helpful under the Renewable Fuel Standard, where a gallon is a gallon is a gallon — except there is the possibility that fuels that reduce carbon by, say, 25%, could if supplied into the aviation sector qualify for pricey advanced biofuels RINs (that require a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions).


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