President Biden’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 is an admirable and ambitious undertaking. It’s nearly double the goal set by President Obama in 2015. And it establishes the United States as a world leader in battling climate change.
But reaching the president’s target in just under 10 years is a monumental task. It’s so big, in fact, that we’ll never get there by government action alone. No amount of vehicle efficiency standards, forest conservation efforts, or gas taxes can fully solve the problem.
We have to science our way out of it.
The biosciences, including biotechnology, will play a pivotal role in the fight against climate change. It is already leading the way on several fronts. According to a report from BIO, the organization I work for, the biotech industry’s green initiatives could mitigate the equivalent of 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year by 2030, or about half of the country’s annual CO2 emissions.
Take food, for example.
Food consumption — and production — is central to human existence. Global food production accounts for one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report from an international team of researchers concluded that even if all other fossil fuel emissions were eliminated, emissions from food production alone would prevent us from reaching a key goal of the climate change agreement signed in Paris: preventing the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.
Halting food production isn’t an option, so biotech companies are helping farmers become part of the climate solution. Take, for example, Boston-based Joyn Bio. It is engineering bacteria that pull nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. These microbes then pass the nitrogen to crops like wheat and corn, reducing the need to make, transport, and apply nitrogen fertilizers, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Minnesota-based Acceligen is using a technique it calls precision breeding that improves the health of livestock while reducing their waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage.
Biotechnology can also help protect food from climate change. As fungal and bacterial infections accelerated by human-driven environmental disturbances threaten to wipe out Cavendish bananas, Tropic Biosciences in the United Kingdom is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to engineer infection-resistant bananas.
Companies are also rethinking how food is packaged to reduce plastic pollution and open high-tech paths to broader adoption of biodegradables. This would be a game-changer in the interlinked fight to modulate climate change and protect the oceans.
Globally, 100 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 8 million of which ends up in the oceans. The production of plastic requires at least 8% of the world’s petroleum. Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and incineration could rise from the current 850 million tons a year to 3 billion tons a year by 2050. And discarded plastic that ends up in the ocean slowly breaks down in sunlight, releasing greenhouse gases and toxic microplastics.
Georgia-based Danimer Scientific — partnering with the Mars Wrigley candy company — is working on biodegradable packaging that uses plant oils to manufacture “plastic” that dissolves in soil and water. Bioplastics and biopolymers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions reductions by up to 80% more compared to their petroleum-based counterparts.
Fuel is another target for biotechnology. Transportation accounts for the highest percentage of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. While electric cars are gaining popularity, and the $174 billion allocated to support the transition to electrics in Biden’s American Jobs Plan is important, biofuels — which are carbon neutral — will be needed to help reduce emissions in transportation and need comparable support.
The biotech company Synthetic Genomics, for instance, is utilizing saltwater algae, which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into biomass, to make sustainable auto fuel. By 2025, 10,000 barrels of the algal biofuel could be produced per day for commercial use.
Biofuels will also play an important role in air travel. While flying accounts for less than 3% of global CO2 emissions a year, on a per-mile calculation it’s the least green form of travel. With the number of air travel passengers expected to double by 2040, the Biden administration is upping the financial incentives — through tax credits — for companies that produce sustainable aircraft fuels.
Biotech firms are already stepping up. Companies like Neste, Gevo, and World Energy are using everything from algae to used or wasted cooking oil to create sustainable jet fuels. LanzaTech recycles carbon from industrial emissions and other sources and turns it into aviation fuel — and has recently partnered with other corporations to bring that fuel to market for commercial airline use.
With help from biotechnology, the U.S. can achieve the climate change goals outlined by the Biden administration and the Paris Agreement. Human progress and technology got us into this mess. That same ingenuity can help get us out.
Michelle McMurry-Heath is a physician-scientist and the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.