Time for Europe to embrace ‘affordable, sustainable’ energy solutions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The European Union should embrace new renewable solutions such as gas fermentation technologies to advance towards a low-carbon economy, argues Jennifer Holmgren.

Jennifer Holmgren is chief executive of LanzaTech, which has developed a biological fermentation process that transforms industrial waste gases and residues into fuels and chemicals.

Pressed by Europe’s economic crisis, EU leaders at a recent summit called for “affordable and sustainable energy” to underpin the EU’s “competitiveness, jobs and growth”. Many see this as wishful thinking, and argue for a relaxation of the club’s ambitious 2020 energy and emissions reduction targets.

If the EU is to weather the crisis and emerge stronger and more competitive than ever, energy policies need to be looking resolutely forward, not back. Technologies are advancing faster than the policies designed to harness them. The EU is debating amendments to the Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive to include sustainability criteria. These criteria could help determine whether Europe can indeed meet its 2020 targets. If policies can catch up with science, sustainable energy can fuel Europe’s growth.

Researchers in many different fields have made working out the conundrum of affordable and sustainable energy their priority for years now. Their investments are paying off. A number of new technologies are questioning our perceptions of waste for example, by turning greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into a valuable resource, and the potential is vast and varied. It is part of a growing trend among researchers who say why capture and bury these gases – a technique supported by EU policies– when you can recycle them into valuable commodities?

The EU’s 2020 target to source 10% of Europe’s transport fuel from renewables, is reachable by deploying a variety of existing and new technologies, including gas fermentation which captures carbon-rich waste and residues from European manufacturers and recycles it into biofuel in a closed loop system. These processes allow industries not only to reduce their carbon footprint, but moreover to convert this liability into a valuable green commodity, and be at the forefront of a greener, more sustainable economy.

This kind of economy supports green growth for industry, preserving and creating jobs across Europe as manufacturers and industry invest in green technologies while maintaining a healthy bottom line. The old argument that a cleaner, greener economy and job-creation are mutually exclusive just doesn’t hold water anymore. Greening a traditional industry by deployment of a gas fermentation facility at a steel plant for example can create 40 to 50 jobs. CleanTech also boosts foreign direct investment, with global supply chain partners and customers ready to finance and build plants in Europe. Furthermore, increased efficiency and reduced dependence on fossil imports reinforce energy security, and help reduce costs.

It is crucial that Europe, in its role as global leader in the fight against climate change, embrace these technologies. Looking beyond 2020, they are an important part of the equation if the EU is to meet its commitments to reduce GHGs 95% by 2050. As Commission President José Manuel Barroso said at the summit, however, there is no silver bullet solution. In its drive for a more sustainable economy, Europe needs to assess all technologies over time and not stop with one policy. There is a high risk for policies focusing on one or a few technologies that may not work in the long run or produce unintended consequences in the future. There is a need to de-risk those policies by diversifying but also coordinating the different policies to further support deployment of clean technologies.

Many policymakers and researchers have rightly argued that the solution to climate change requires a wide range of measures. Why not expand the concept of renewable energy beyond solar, wind and other means of harnessing the forces of nature? You need carbon to produce liquid fuels and chemicals – and we can source this from wastes and residues from industry in Europe today. Why not look at what up to now has been seen as a burden we’d just like to go away or bury, and see greenhouse gases as an opportunity, as one solution in a complex equation to ensure a more sustainable, growing economy?

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