Can AB32 Help Save the Amazon?
December 7, 2011
ith global warming accords in disarray, the European Union (EU), individual nations, and now California are taking decisive action. Even the most local of initiatives, however, impacts the rest of the world. California, for example, could help save the Amazon forest, the world’s largest carbon sink. And algae’s role could be decisive.
California’s AB 32, or Global Warming Solutions Act, calls for the state to become “a national and international leader on energy conservation and environmental stewardship efforts…” Five years after Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature passed AB 32, and two years to the day after California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) put forward its comprehensive implementation plan, emission limits, or “caps”, take effect this January 1, 2012. By 2020, total emissions must be reduced to 1990 levels.
The limits are supported through California’s cap and trade market, which will soon become the world’s second largest, after the EU. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitters who exceed designated caps must purchase “offsets” from GHG producers who manage to come in under their caps. Because it will take some years for emitters to meet AB32 standards, excessive emitters can purchase four kinds of GHG offsets: for developing forests, capturing methane gas from commercial animals, and reducing ozone-depleting chemicals.
These four programs cannot possibly provide enough offsets to balance out these over-cap emissions. AB32 therefore authorizes offsets from “international partners”: foreign nations, states and provinces. The most GHG absorption, for the least possible investment, comes from forest preservation and restoration. Only oceans and soil absorb more GHG, but they are not amenable to direct intervention. Worse, global warming reduces oceans’ and soil’s ability to absorb GHGs. Foreign forests are the best bet, and California has already signed memoranda of agreement with Chiapas, Mexico, and Acre, Brazil.
In an effort to truly lead the world in reducing emissions, AB32 authorizes California’s excess emitters to invest in developing nations’ efforts to reverse deforestation.
In an insightful November 3 interview with E&E News, Elizabeth Zelljadt described how such international cooperation might work. California emitters will look for the most HGH capture for the lowest possible cost. Deforestation control offers the best HGH reduction for the lowest cost; and Brazil is the epicenter of forest preservation.
Brazil’s commitment to countering deforestation is real, and has already resulted in significant reductions. But these efforts are running up against its ambition to become the world’s biofuel leader in sugar-based ethanol, a goal ironically aimed at reducing petroleum GHG emissions.
Brazil and the United States account for 88% of the world’s ethanol, and Brazil has committed to invest another $22B in the industry. On top of it, mechanized mass cane production displaces the farmers Brazil hopes to preserve, and using cane for fuel exacerbate global food price increases, already a crisis in Brazil as in Africa and Asia. Finally, sugar cane production means deforestation.
Algae provide not only a way out for Brazil, but the basis for a national strategy for energy, environment and employment.
With appropriate, energy-conscious technology, algae can first supplement, and eventually replace sugar cane as a biofuel feedstock.
Initially, algae can absorb the CO2 outputs from ethanol production. A high-starch algae can be turned into ethanol right on the spot, which means it can eventually replace the corn or wheat being used as the raw material.
That’s why Manildra, the largest Australian ethanol producer, signed with a local algae producer to demonstrate ethanol production from algae at Manildra’s largest ethanol plant. A full scale module is scheduled for startup by the end of Q1, 2012.
As reported in the trade paper Automotive Industries, “Manildra is moving ahead with the Algae.Tec system for two primary reasons. One is to eliminate use of food commodities (now primarily wheat) as raw material for making ethanol. The second is the Algae.Tec system’s productive use of CO2 which is otherwise a waste liability of Manildra plant operations. Australia is reportedly planning to impose taxes on CO2 released to atmosphere.”
Replacing petroleum oil with algae fuels reduces energy in three ways. Most obviously, it produces a green fuel to replace coal, oil and natural gas. In cultivation and production, the carbon sink created by algae production absorbs, or captures, the greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. And it reduces the incentive to deforest the Amazon for cane sugar production and petroleum oil reserves.
Algae fuel production not only displaces carbon-intensive cane production, and preserves forest by reducing the demand and need for sugar cane. Like the forests they help preserve, algae cultivation also absorbs GHG and generates oxygen.
Finally, algae can absorb all kinds of waste and toxic materials, even radioactive substances. This gives it a dual role: as a green fuel, but also as a way to reduce the impact of man-made pollution.
Wastewater that is becoming an increasing environmental hazard in the upper Amazon can be treated in algae cultivation. As an organic aquaculture food, it can stimulate prospects for an inland aquaculture.
It’s a triple environmental win:
- Reducing the deforestation caused by displacing sugar cane for ethanol,
- Reducing GHG by cultivating algae itself, while generating oxygen,
- And stimulating carbon-free, organic land cultivation, animal feed, and aquaculture.
Regulators and governments tend to look at problems and solutions in isolation, without seeing the bigger picture. Only recently, for instance, have the by-products and unintended consequences of ethanol production and use raised questions about its isolated (and previously taken for granted) benefits. Now we know that ethanol from food crops contributes to the global crises of high food cost and insufficient supply.
From the political perspective, it may all come down to jobs.
Unlike the super-mechanized petroleum and ethanol industries, algae cultivation is both labor-intensive and adaptable to small-scale cultivation, harvesting, refining and distribution.
And that doesn’t count building the infrastructure of algae ponds, refineries, and distribution centers required for the new sustainable biofuels.
The great news is that the jobs won’t just be created in Brazil and other developing countries, but right here in California, where much of the algae research and development are taking place. San Diego, for example, has benefited from more than a billion dollars in private and public sector algae investments.
Eventually, algae production itself will ramp up in California, producing jobs in production, processing and distribution; and someday it could help address the greatest challenge of all: all that choking smog.