What if there was a vaccine that could protect us from the effects of climate change, or better yet, stop it in its tracks? Unfortunately, this is not the case – oh how much easier things might be if it was.
Climate change is a serious threat to our world, and it needs to be treated with the same urgency and importance that we have shown to the pandemic, with a 7% reduction in CO2 emissions needed year on year to hit targets. While the effects are less noticeable on a day-to-day basis, the consequences of ignoring the climate emergency will be disastrous. And with the absence of a magical vaccine to solve our problem this time, we must turn to real, long-term solutions instead.
Once again, with parallels to the pandemic, the life sciences sector will be integral in the battle against climate change – the effects of which are already being seen with increasingly extreme weather conditions around the globe.
The biotechnology alternative
Ending society’s reliance on oil will be no small feat, but biotechnology offers incredible opportunities to address these issues through the adoption of innovative processes and technologies.
At present, oil-derived feedstocks are essential manufacturing building blocks for industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to the chemicals and plastics sectors. However, our knowledge of engineering micro-organisms, by utilising biotechnology, has now reached the point where virtually all of industry’s requirements can be met by alternative bio-production methods instead of resorting to petrochemicals.
As a fast-growing emergent industry, the world of biotechnology has already shown its promise in mitigating climate change through removing pollution and producing clean, renewable energy sources. From biofuels to alternative proteins and from low-temperature washing powders to biodegradable plastics, many biotechnology-based products are already part of our everyday lives.
Biome Bioplastics, a fast-growing UK SME, is manufacturing bio-based and biotechnology-derived plastics to generate new products such as compostable coffee pods that have lower carbon footprints in manufacture and ensure both coffee and pod can be composted after use. Paul Mines, Biome’s CEO, said “we are collaborating with the UK’s leading universities to bring forward a new generation of novel plastics that are derived from renewable bio-based inputs rather than oil and that have a non-polluting end-of-life. Engineering biology like this gives beneficial novel materials in a sustainable way.”
Already some big industrial companies are addressing the problem. Unilever, one of the world’s biggest makers of home care products, has recently said that by 2030 it wants all its laundry and cleaning products – one of the company’s largest revenue generators – to have moved away from a reliance on petrochemical feedstocks. Instead, Unilever will use of a mix of carbon sources ranging from carbon extracted from unwanted waste to carbon capture and utilisation under a carbon diversification scheme called the Carbon Rainbow.
Holiferm, a University of Manchester spinout, are one of the companies poised to help Unilever and others deliver their ambitions, is now building a 1,000 tonnes per annum scale commercial plant in the Northwest to produce microbial biosurfactants – which are used widely in products such as shampoos and cleaning products.
Then there’s Croda, who make and sell speciality chemicals for a diverse range of products including health and beauty, engine lubricants, plastics, and many more have committed to accelerate their transition to bio-based products, moving away from fossil/petrochemical feedstocks. Nick Challoner, Croda’s Chief Scientific Officer said “We have set ourselves a target to reach 75% of our raw materials coming from bio-based sources. Scaling biotechnology is one of our top ten strategic priorities and we see it as key in us achieving our ambition to be the most sustainable supplier of innovative ingredients.”
New jobs follow new technology
With the growth of the biotechnology sector, the need for a skilled workforce is critical. Biotechnology and bio-based manufacturing are right at the cusp of society’s pivot away from its century-old reliance on oil, as such, it has a huge role to play in helping skilled people in the oil and gas industry to make the transition into ‘green’ jobs. We need to generate new opportunities for these highly skilled people to transition into renewables and into the process and manufacturing industries.
For me, and the National Horizons Centre situated in the Tees Valley, which hosts one of the six industrial clusters that are responsible for producing over 8.8 million tonnes of CO2 a year, our work in this regard is even more important.
For those unfamiliar with the Tees Valley, the industrial setting of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner was inspired by the view of the former ICI plant at the heart of the region, which was born from an economy based primarily on heavy industry – notably steel and petrochemicals. However, today biotech has been well established in the Tees Valley, developed from the region’s historical links to fermentation technology and innovation. Indeed, local company, Quorn was born out of an ICI spinout company.
This green revolution, however, has evolved organically over many years, along with the seemingly continual conversations about climate change – with not enough action being taken to halt climbing global temperatures.
One thing we have undoubtedly learned from the pandemic is that with urgency and proper financial backing, the life sciences sector can find solutions extremely quickly. We must apply the same attitude to the climate change crisis and work together as industries to deliver effective solutions to hit net zero emissions targets and avoid the inevitable destruction of continuing to adopt a business as usual mentality.
Dr Jen Vanderhoven is the Director of the National Horizons Centre (NHC), a £22.3m centre of excellence for the biosciences and healthcare sector. With research, partnerships, and training at its core, the NHC brings together industry, academia, talent, and world-class facilities to create real-world impact.
Jen also sits on the Industrial Biotechnology Forum, which provides strategic coordination of the UK’s fast-growing Industrial Biotechnology sector, by a forum of active participants from industry, the research community, public access scale-up facilities, funding agencies, government and other key stakeholders.