9 April 2020

An exclusive interview with Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech. “We have to stop waiting for leaders to make decisions for us. We need to act.”

Exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista and Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech

“We also need to careful that the warning bells don’t go unnoticed as we try to rebuild our way of life in the same mold as before. Already we are hearing murmurings about a need for cheap (and fossil) energy to stimulate ailing virus hit sectors. We do not need to go back in time, we need to move forward. Hopefully COVID will have taught us how bad things can get when we do not think, do not plan, do not collaborate, do not listen to the science, do not listen to early warnings.  But the most important lesson, I think, is that through individual action and caring for others, people who were healthy and in “low” risk groups, stayed home. They were sacrificing for others; they were not thinking about themselves.”

To say it – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

The world is facing a dramatic pandemic related to the spread of the coronavirus. Some scientists link the birth of this virus and others who are able to spill over from animals to humans to phenomena such as climate change, urbanization and deforestation. What is your point of view in this regard?

While there isn’t direct evidence that climate change influences COVID-19, we do know that climate change, deforestation and increased pollution globally has altered our planet, our atmosphere and how we interact with other species and that can play a critical role in how we adapt to new threats. Many people are pointing to increased warming and deforestation related habitat loss, that causes animal migration resulting in new animal contact with other animals and with human populations, resulting in opportunities for pathogens to get into new hosts.

While these links may prove correct, from my perspective the key factor is that our impact on the planet to date is impacting our ability to fight the virus. A study done on SARS, a virus closely related to COVID, found that people who breathed dirtier air were about twice as likely to die from the infection.

The most vulnerable people are those that have respiratory problems, lack access to water and live in overcrowded conditions. Pollution, extreme weather, including floods and drought have exacerbated our vulnerable populations, often displaced from their homes or places of safety; they will not stand a chance when the virus hits their communities.

We are facing all around the world a health crisis that is also an economic crisis never known for the last 70 years. As far as you’re concerned, what role will the bioeconomy have to restart?

I have to stay positive and hope that as a species we will seize the opportunity to rethink how we do things in a post COVID world.  Obvious examples are in how we are now being forced to rethink how we consume things, from food to travel. The bioeconomy can play a role in creating new healthier and more resilient ways of living. For example, sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable aviation fuel can support the aviation sector as people rethink how much travel they actually need to do having worked remotely for an extended period. People may become more discerning over the choices they make and how their choices impact their health and the health of the planet. This is an opportunity for the bioeconomy to shine. In addition, the bioeconomy creates jobs for a community that will desperately need to be employed post this crisis.

One thing seems obvious: the world will no longer be as before. Our priorities, our reference points will change. How will this change be better addressed?

If we think about an earthquake, there are often signs before it hits. Increased seismic activity, animal behaviour changes, all indictors that something is about to happen. I have hope that in a post COVID world, we as a species have a greater appreciation that after the fact solutions and actions will not protect us, much like earthquake preparation after it has struck.

From a disease perspective, the warning bells sounded before with Ebola, MERS and SARS. From a climate change perspective, we have flooding, once in a 100-year storms hitting every year, increased asthma rates, deaths each summer related to heat stroke and dehydration and so on. We need to be listening to our planet.

In both cases, the importance of science and good data is clear. Data has helped us most recently by showing us the importance of flattening the curve. The numbers don’t lie, and they helped us make individual choices, like whether to social distance, meticulously wash hands and stay home. I see parallels with the climate change movement and the choices we make in taking our own shopping bags, how much meat we eat or how often we fly. As you know I like to talk about CarbonSmart and I see parallels here in the individual choice in deciding where the carbon in your products should come from. Fresh fossil, or recycled? As we know consumer demand drives change and so does individual action. Speaking to friends in Brussels this week, they said at the start of the lock down, people were still having picnics in the parks and going for a beer with friends but now they and their peers have seen the data, they have seen what is happening in places where they ignored the signs and they are taking collective action. This idea of collective action must continue as we tackle the challenges of our warming planet. We have to stop waiting for leaders to make decisions for us.  We need to act.

We also need to careful that the warning bells don’t go unnoticed as we try to rebuild our way of life in the same mold as before. Already we are hearing murmurings about a need for cheap (and fossil) energy to stimulate ailing virus hit sectors.  We do not need to go back in time, we need to move forward. Hopefully COVID will have taught us how bad things can get when we do not think, do not plan, do not collaborate, do not listen to the science, do not listen to early warnings. But the most important lesson, I think, is that through individual action and caring for others, people who were healthy and in “low” risk groups, stayed home. They were sacrificing for others; they were not thinking about themselves. We need to change how we operate. This is an opportunity to find a way to work positively with our planet and our community. A resilient bioeconomy will be key.

How is this crisis affecting Lanzatech’s business?

Our team in China had been working from home with a complete travel ban, including to our facility in China since late January and so we have been watching things unfold closely and preparing accordingly for a few months. While our commercial site in China is operating, we have shut down our R&D facility in Skokie and our biorefinery in Georgia. At this point we are planning for a long-term change in operations for our sites and also staying close to delivery delays across the supply chain that may impact our business and our customers. At this time, we are also planning for delays to projects around the world.

What message do you want to send to the world bioeconomy community?

Last week on twitter I read a letter from the Chief of Surgery from a prominent New York hospital tackling the influx of COVID patients. He said that nothing would give greater pleasure than to have overestimated the threat and that the next month or 2 will be a horror if we underestimate it. Climate change is that horror and it is unfolding in front of us, much like COVID-19 is today. Instead of despair, he goes on to give a rallying cry to all to keep going. Relating the challenges ahead to the famed 1925 diptheria serum run across 1085 km of Alaska by a relay of 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs in -30C and blizzard conditions to get the serum to those in need in time, he goes on “So what can we do? Load the sled, check the traces, feed the dogs and mush on.”

My message to the bioeconomy community? We mush on. We can. We will. We must.

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Source: Il Bioeconomista, 2020-04-02.

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