, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 196-204

Bioenergy to save the world

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Abstract

Background and Aim

Following to the 2006 climate summit, the European Union formally set the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. But even today, climate change is already affecting people and ecosystems. Examples are melting glaciers and polar ice, reports about thawing permafrost areas, dying coral reefs, rising sea levels, changing ecosystems and fatal heat periods. Within the last 150 years, CO2 levels rose from 280 ppm to currently over 400 ppm. If we continue on our present course, CO2 equivalent levels could approach 600 ppm by 2035. However, if CO2 levels are not stabilized at the 450–550 ppm level, the consequences could be quite severe. Hence, if we do not act now, the opportunity to stabilise at even 550 ppm is likely to slip away. Long-term stabilisation will require that CO2 emissions ultimately be reduced to more than 80% below current levels. This will require major changes in how we operate.

Results

Reducing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels seems to be the most promising approach to counterbalance the dramatic climate changes we would face in the near future. It is clear since the Kyoto protocol that the availability of fossil carbon resources will not match our future requirements. Furthermore, the distribution of fossil carbon sources around the globe makes them an even less reliable source in the future. We propose to screen crop and non-crop species for high biomass production and good survival on marginal soils as well as to produce mutants from the same species by chemical mutagenesis or related methods. These plants, when grown in adequate crop rotation, will provide local farming communities with biomass for the fermentation in decentralized biogas reactors, and the resulting nitrogen rich manure can be distributed on the fields to improve the soil.

Discussion

Such an approach will open new economic perspectives to small farmers, and provide a clever way to self sufficient and sustainable rural development. Together with the present economic reality, where energy and raw material prices have drastically increased over the last decade, they necessitate the development and the establishment of alternative concepts.

Conclusions

Biotechnology is available to apply fast breeding to promising energy plant species. It is important that our valuable arable land is preserved for agriculture. The opportunity to switch from low-income agriculture to biogas production may convince small farmers to adhere to their business and by that preserve the identity of rural communities.

Perspectives

Overall, biogas is a promising alternative for the future, because its resource base is widely available, and single farms or small local cooperatives might start biogas plant operation.

This work was stimulated by discussions within COST Actions 837 and 859.