The Global Social Network
President Joseph R. Biden's climate policy has recently triggered rumors in right-wing American media of a potential burger ban in America. Such speculations about beef ban have been categorically denied by Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, there are reasons to believe that the Biden focus on renewable energy alone will not be enough to achieve his ambitious targets. The current food production methods, particularly the beef industry, will also have to be fundamentally redesigned to meet Biden's climate goal of 50-52% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Other industrial processes that will need fundamental rethink to reduce emissions include production of cement, steel and plastics. Dealing with these challenges will require a lot of innovation and new technologies. It presents an opportunity for technology entrepreneurs to reshape the world yet again.
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Impact of Meat Production:
Animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. Relatively large animals like buffaloes, cows and pigs are raised in huge numbers to cater to meat and dairy demand. These animals emit methane gas which is a powerful pollutant that is much more potent than carbon dioxide. Almost 15% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with cattle making up about two-thirds of that. Livestock farming also requires a lot of land, a significant cause of deforestation in places like Brazil’s Amazon.
What is making the situation worse is that the demand for meat and dairy is rising in large developing countries like China, India and Pakistan. It is putting greater pressure on the environment and making it difficult to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times.
Several technology companies are working on plant-based and cell-based meats to offer a climate-friendly alternative to beef, chicken and pork. Plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are already producing and shipping in significant quantities.
Other technology companies are working on cell-based meats grown in large vats from real animal cells. These companies include San Francisco-based Eat Just and Berkeley-based Memphis Meats, just to name a few. In a recently published book entitled "Billion Dollar Burger", author Chase Purdy detailed his findings on lab-grown meats. Here is an except from the book:
"By harvesting animal cells and quite literally growing them into fat and muscle tissue inside industrial bioreactors, humans have figured out how to create the exact same meats we’ve eaten for more than half a million years. In doing so, those scientists hope to enable us to sidestep the need to slaughter billions of animals annually, and theoretically, in time, eliminate the need for an industrial farming system that pumps an alarming amount of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s warming atmosphere each year. Scientists agree that animal agriculture is responsible for about 14 percent of greenhouse greenhouse gas emissions. Fully wrapping our heads around the impact of the animal agriculture system we’ve always known is mind-bogglingly difficult. Lots of scientists attempt to measure the full environmental footprint of animal agriculture, and almost all of them have run into fierce sets of critics who challenge their methodologies and motives. Did the scientist measure the life cycle of a single animal and then multiply those data to represent its specific sector? Did they include data on the energy used to grow, manage, and transport the feed grain for cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals? How about factoring in deforestation to make room for grazing? Or the long impact of water pollution from nitrous oxide in manure?"
The focus of most of the governments' climate policies has so far been on switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. A quick look at common industrial processes like cement, steel and plastic production shows that these processes are major contributors to global warming. Cement and steel production each contributes 8% of global greenhouse emissions. All of these materials are essential for modern construction and manufacturing industries.
Cement production contributes greenhouse gases both directly through the production of carbon dioxide when calcium carbonate is thermally decomposed, producing lime and carbon dioxide, and also through the use of energy, particularly from the combustion of fossil fuels. Similarly, steel-making requires the use of coal to remove oxygen from iron oxide ore. This process emits large amounts of carbon dioxide. Plastics, extracted from oil, are used to make a huge range of products today. Extraction and transportation of oil and production of plastics all produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Changing the production processes of widely used materials like cement, plastics and steel poses a major technological challenge. Among the methods proposed for reducing carbon emissions from these processes is carbon capture...both point carbon capture and direct air capture. Here's an excerpt of Bill Gates' recent book entitled "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" on climate-friendly industrial processes for cement, steel and plastics:
"One approach is to take recycled carbon dioxide—possibly captured during the process of making cement—and inject it back into the cement before it’s used at the construction site. The company that’s pursuing this idea has several dozen customers already, including Microsoft and McDonald’s; so far it’s only able to reduce emissions by around 10 percent, though it hopes to get to 33 percent eventually. Another, more theoretical approach involves making cement out of seawater and the carbon dioxide captured from power plants. The inventors behind this idea think it could ultimately cut emissions by more than 70 percent. Yet even if these approaches are successful, they won’t give us 100 percent carbon-free cement. For the foreseeable future, we’ll have to count on carbon capture and—if it becomes practical—direct air capture to grab the carbon emitted when we make cement. For pretty much all other materials, the first thing we need is plenty of reliable clean electricity. Electricity already accounts for about a quarter of all the energy used by the manufacturing sector worldwide; to power all these industrial processes, we need to both deploy the clean energy technology we already have and develop breakthroughs that let us generate and store lots of zero-carbon electricity inexpensively. And soon we’ll need even more power, as we pursue another way to reduce emissions: electrification, which is the technique of using electricity instead of fossil fuels for some industrial processes. For example, one very cool approach for steelmaking is to use clean electricity to replace coal. A company I’m following closely has developed a new process called molten oxide electrolysis: Instead of burning iron in a furnace with coke, you pass electricity through a cell that contains a mixture of liquid iron oxide and other ingredients. The electricity causes the iron oxide to break apart, leaving you with the pure iron you need for steel, and pure oxygen as a by-product. No carbon dioxide is produced at all. This technique is promising—it’s similar to a process we’ve been using for more than a century to purify aluminum—but like the other ideas for clean steel it hasn’t yet been proven to work at an industrial scale. Clean electricity would help us solve another problem too: making plastics. If enough pieces come together, plastics could one day become a carbon sink—a way to remove carbon rather than emit it. "
Climate change is a major challenge for humanity. It goes beyond energy production and consumption. Areas that account for bulk of greenhouse emissions include production of food, cement, plastics and steels. Dealing with these challenges will require a lot of innovation and new technologies. It presents an opportunity for technology entreprenrurs to reshape the world yet again.
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