Mankind is in the midst of an unprecedented challenge. COVID19 has spread around the world and dominates global news. It is affecting all of us in one way or another. Only the experts can provide guidance on how long it will last and when it will finally be over. Our advice meanwhile is to follow the rules as laid down by your governments and companies.
At some point in the future we will recover from this crisis and our societies will move on. Until thentake good care of yourselves and your families.
As inspiration for a time when societies will recover and businesses get back on track, in this month’s newsletter we are delighted to share an article by OECD policy analyst, Jim Philp. In this piece Jim elaborates how bio-based products and goods could come to compete alongside fossil-based products in the years to come.
How does bio-based achieve higher impact in environmental policy? (Jim Philp, OECD)
Long overlooked in comparison to energy and transport fuels, bio-based chemicals and materials are part of a drive towards sustainability, which is usually discussed in the context of emissions. This is why bioenergy and biofuels have dominated the policy space. There are reasons to believe that this balance will change by mid-century:
- Increasing use of renewables for electricity generation and the rise of electric vehicles will decrease fossil energy consumption in these sectors;
- Global chemical industry production could triple by mid-century (IEA World Energy Outlook, 2018).
In other words, the proportion of the oil barrel used for transport may well decrease while the proportion for chemistry could dramatically increase due to demand for products such as plastics (IEA, 2018).
It is often assumed that bio-based production has the potential to significantly reduce emissions from the production of chemicals and materials. Herein lies a conundrum that relates to scale of production:
- Low value, high volume bio-based products are very difficult to scale, but they would have the highest impact on climate mitigation.
- Low volume, high value products are easier to scale but their effects on global emissions are minimal.
Clearly the bio-based industries have been most successful in category two above. Only seven primary chemicals – ammonia, methanol, ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene, and mixed xylenes – account for approximately two-thirds of the chemicals sector’s total consumption of final energy products. To date, there is no competitive bio-based drop-in or equivalent. To contribute to sustainability and guarantee the attention of policy makers, a competitive bio-based version of any one of these top seven chemicals would make a large difference.
Many policy aspects relate back to titre and productivity
Not understood or badly understood by policymakers, titre and productivity make or break a bio-based process. In chemistry, feedstocks are concentrated, processes are fast and products are formed in high concentration. In biology, feedstocks are dilute, processes are slow and products are dilute. That can work for many high value products, especially biopharma products – even with vast improvements in titres, biotherapeutics are in the range of around 10 to 20 grams per litre (US National Academies Press, 2019). Clearly this will not work for petro-replacements when the competition is based on price and the chemicals industry achieves large economies of scale through centralised production.
What of the current surge in investments in synthetic biology?
In the past few years there has been a surge in investments in synthetic or engineering biology. The goals for synthetic biology are often linked to more sustainable production. One way for synthetic biology to foster sustainable production is to improve bioprocess efficiency – improve titres, shorten process times, reduce energy consumption and waste production. There are many successes at research level but very few at production level. It is being suggested that greater integration of biological techniques such as metabolic engineering with computing technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning is the best way to improve success of up-scaling (Kitney et al., 2019). One other promising technology is cell-free synthetic biology, where the constraints upon a bioprocess imposed by the presence of the cell are removed (Lu, 2017; Tinafar et al., 2019).
Public policy to trigger private investments and de-risk bio-based production
Given the early stage development of bio-based materials, policies need to trigger the industry to innovate continuously. Ultimately, it needs to develop improved bio-based alternatives to achieve ambitious and independently verifiable CO2 emissions reductions (Saygin et al., 2014). It should be borne in mind that the great efficiencies and economies of scale of the petrochemicals industry were not achieved quickly and indeed required a great deal of policy support.
The obvious policy instrument for de-risking bio-production is public-private partnerships (PPPs) aimed at up-scaling production. By providing public funding for this, there is also another policy message; that governments are committing to this technology in the longer term. The private sector is wary of political U-turns that leave their investments and assets stranded. The European Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) is a stellar example of such a PPP. The marriage of public and private sector actors is not an easy one. A crucial message for the public sector is to know the limits of public intervention – let the private sector handle what it does best and concentrate on aspects that can maximise the efficiency of the public-private interaction.
Preparing the market
There are well-established reasons why governments are shy of demand-side policy measures, favouring supply-side measures such as building infrastructure (OECD, 2011). In particular, governments get accused of interfering with markets by instruments that favour preparing for market entry, such as public procurement. But leaving industry to invest in expensive new production plants in an atmosphere of policy uncertainty and also to develop the market that is already occupied by fossil incumbents is an unconscionable expectation.
Alignment with climate policy and the UN sustainable development goals
Aerni (2013) suggested that climate and biotechnology are very seldom discussed in the same forum for reasons more political than scientific, and that there is an “influential opposition” that strongly rejects the view that biotechnology is climate-friendly and can be part of the toolbox of technologies for climate change mitigation. Many publications demonstrate that bio-based drop-ins or functional equivalents can in fact offer significant emissions savings (e.g. Weiss et al., 2012).
Were there internationally accepted environmental standards for bio-based chemicals and materials, such as those suggested by Narayan and Patel (2003), then alignment of bio-based production with climate policy and the SDGs would be easier. El-Chichakli et al. (2016) were among the earliest to establish a connection between biotechnologies and the SDGs, and Kitney et al. (2019) emphasised the use of engineering biology to develop the advanced or next-generation bioeconomy. Recently French (2019) stated that synthetic biology could contribute to eight of the SDGs. An overlooked issue in the public sector is that sustainability can add value to industrial products when the competition on price is unwinnable. However, sustainability is not just about GHG emissions, and to date there is a lack of international agreement on how to measure sustainability, which should be a top priority for policymakers.
A blend of specific and general policies
As the above implies, a blend of specific policies, such as providing infrastructure, with general policies, like climate or energy independence, is probably more palatable to the public and governments alike. Governments are traditionally wary of “picking winners”, so expecting a large number of expensive biotechnology-specific policies without demonstrable successes is a huge ask. It is up to both public (academic and other public researchers) and private actors to provide the success stories like bio-based 1,3-propanediol (Sauer et al., 2008) in larger numbers at a realistic scale of production.
After many engagements with public and private actors, the most common industry advice is to make sure that public policy, whatever form it takes, should be stable and long-term. After all, the goals such as climate mitigation, energy and food security and sustainability, rural regeneration, protection of biodiversity are all long-term, and indeed interacting with each other in a complex policy ecosystem. If industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology are indeed capable of filling a niche within this policy ecosystem, then there will also need to be a common sense approach to public engagement, to revisit it to avoid the mistakes of the past in the long and mired debate on genetic modification (Hanssen et al., 2018).
It is impossible to compete in the global fossil products markets based on environmental credentials alone. The three pillars of sustainability are economic, environmental and social. Therefore bio-based products have to compete on price, have environmentally superior characteristics and provide the jobs and other social benefits that are hallmarks of sustainability.
Aerni, P. (2013). Why do the biotechnology and the climate change debates hardly mix? Evidence from a global stakeholder survey. New Biotechnology 30, 344–348.
El-Chichakli, B. et al. (2016). Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy. Nature 535, 221-223.
French, K.E. (2019). Harnessing synthetic biology for sustainable development. Nature Sustainability 2, 250–252.
Hanssen, L. et al. (2018). Revisiting public debate on Genetic Modification and Genetically Modified Organisms. Explanations for contemporary Dutch public attitudes. Journal of Science Communication 17 (04), A01. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17040201.
IEA World Energy Outlook (2018). International Energy Agency Publishing, Paris.
IEA (2018). The future of petrochemicals. Towards a more sustainable chemical industry.
International Energy Agency Publishing, Paris.
Kitney, R. et al. (2019). Enabling the advanced bioeconomy with engineering biology. Trends in Biotechnology 37, 917-920.
Lu, Y. (2017). Cell-free synthetic biology: Engineering in an open world. Synthetic and Systems Biotechnology 2, 23-27.
Narayan, R. and M.K. Patel (2003). Review and analysis of bio-based product LCA’s, Institute for Science & Public Policy.
OECD/IEA (2018). The Future of Petrochemicals. Towards more sustainable plastics and fertilisers. IEA Publications, Paris.
OECD (2011). Demand-side innovation policies. OECD Publishing, Paris.
Sauer, M. et al. (2008). Microbial production of 1,3-propanediol. Recent Patents on Biotechnology 2, 191-197.
Saygin, D. et al. (2014). Assessment of the technical and economic potentials of biomass use for the production of steam, chemicals and polymers. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 40, 1153-1167.
Tinafar, A. et al. (2019). Synthetic biology goes cell-free. BMC Biology 17:64.
US National Academies Press (2019). Continuous Manufacturing for the Modernization of Pharmaceutical Production: Proceedings of a Workshop. National Academies Press, Washington DC.
Weiss, M. et al. (2012). A review of the environmental impacts of bio-based materials. Journal of Industrial Ecology 16, S169–S181.
About the author: Jim Philp
Jim has been a policy analyst at the OECD since 2011. He has previously been an academic and industrial biotechnologist with specialist expertise in the oil industry. His work at the OECD involves policy for industrial biotechnology, synthetic biology, biomass sustainability and marine biotechnology. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and an Associate Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. He has authored some 300 articles. Jim has been a member of the World BioEconomy Forum Advisory Board since 2018.
Source: NC Partnering Newsletter 03/2020, 2020-03-31.
Author: Jim Philp