The Lives of Otters

If you walk at night along an open marsh or riverbank, you may well come across an incredible animal. This mammal with two arms and two legs is agile enough to chase and catch a fish underwater and smart enough to use tools. There are as many as 13 distinct species of otter, but I will be focusing on two: the sea otter and the Eurasian river otter. Sea otters recently captured the hearts of millions when they were featured on David Attenborough’s Our Planet. In this piece, I will be looking at what makes otters so special, and what makes them so damn endearing.

If you walk at night along an open marsh or riverbank, you may well come across an incredible animal. This mammal with two arms and two legs is agile enough to chase and catch a fish underwater and smart enough to use tools. There are as many as 13 distinct species of otter, but I will be focusing on two: the sea otter and the Eurasian river otter. Sea otters recently captured the hearts of millions when they were featured on David Attenborough’s Our Planet. In this piece, I will be looking at what makes otters so special, and what makes them so damn endearing.

While humans eat about 3% of our body weight in food each day, Eurasian otters can stuff in a whopping 15 to 20%. That figure goes up to 25 to 30% for sea otters! That is roughly the equivalent of an average human eating 3 bowling balls every day. Sea otters eat so much because they have an extremely fast metabolism, which they need to keep warm in the cold ocean waters. That is also the reason why sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal, with 850,000 to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch. Pleasingly, that is around 420 times thicker than human hair.

To quote Attenborough, “such a luxuriant coat requires a great deal of attention”. Sea otters must thus spend several hours a day grooming themselves to remove salt crystals and add natural oils. They also use this time to work air bubbles into their coat to provide an extra layer of insulation. This trapped air provides 4 times more insulation than the same thickness of blubber. Take that seals! Their thick, oily fur means that an otter’s skin never gets wet.

Around 90% of all the sea otters in the world can be found off the coast of Alaska. The way they eat is truly amazing. Sea otters dive down to collect crabs, sea urchins and other hard-shelled invertebrates. They also collect a rock, which they store under their armpit. The otter returns to the surface and balances the rock on their belly. They then use the rock as a tool to break open the shells and get to the sweet meat within.

Believe it or not, sea otters are also responsible for sequestering carbon, and are thus an ally in the fight against climate change. Sea otters are a ‘keystone’ species, meaning that they have a disproportionately large effect on the ecosystem when compared to other species. One effect of removing sea otters from their ecosystem is that sea urchin populations explode, devouring the carbon-storing kelp forests which the otters call home. In this way, sea otters are indirectly responsible for sequestering between 4.4 and 8.7 million tonnes of carbon each year. In other words, they sequester the same amount of carbon that would be released from deforesting an area between the size of Disney World and Washington DC every year.

Adult sea otters can grow up to nearly 5 feet! Bet you didn’t see that coming. That’s about 4 bowling pins or a little over 1 Danny DeVito. That makes sea otters the largest of all ‘mustelids’: the class of animals which includes weasels, ferrets and badgers. Sea otters are also the only mustelids which don’t produce a strong-smelling secretion from their anal glands to attract mates and mark territory. In order to stop themselves floating apart, sea otters wrap themselves in seaweed to form what is called a ‘raft’. Sea otters have been observed floating in groups of up to 1,000 individuals.

Beginning in around 1741, Russian hunters brought sea otter populations to their knees in order to sell their warm, dense fur. In the process, they completely exterminated the Stellar’s Sea Cow, a close relative of the manatee which measured 9 meters in length. That’s about half a bowling lane or a little over 6 Danny DeVitos in case you were wondering. Sea otter populations rebounded from just 50 individuals in 1914 to around 3,000 animals today. Some populations, however, are once again in decline as a result of oil pollution and habitat loss. They are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN red list.

Eurasian otters mark their territory by depositing faeces on boulders, bridge-footings and grass tussocks. These blobs of dung, known as ‘spraints’ have been used in recent years to track otter populations and find out what they eat. That is because it is very hard to observe them in the wild, since they are mainly nocturnal and largely hunt underwater. Eurasian otters are not picky. While they mainly feed on fish, the Eurasian otter has also been found to eat crayfish, frogs, insects, and even animals like ducks and rabbits.

Despite being solitary creatures, these otters have a pretty complex social life. Males (called ‘dogs’) have a rigid territory which they defend from other males, while female territories overlap. It is thought that females (called ‘bitches’) share a group range, but that each individual has a core area where they spend more than half their time. Essentially the only reason males and females meet is to mate. The male contributes nothing but sperm to the raising of young, despite cubs taking up to 13 months to become self-sufficient hunters. The nest in which the mother raises the young is known as a ‘holt’.

Otter populations have declined significantly across Europe, with the species recently becoming extinct in the Netherlands. Ireland is left as one of the last strongholds for the Eurasian Otter. Their decline was linked to the use of organochlorine pesticides, highly toxic chemicals which have made their way into the aquatic food chain. Organochlorine pesticides include DDT, the chemical at the heart of Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work Silent Spring. The fight against organochlorine pesticides was the catalyst for the birth of the environmentalist movement, and it is easy to see why.

Organochlorine pesticides are a form of chlorinated hydrocarbon, a group which also includes Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial chemical which has also been found in the spraints of Irish otters. More PCBs are found in the spraints of Irish otters the further east you go, since there is more industrial activity in the area surrounding the capital. Sadly, significant numbers of Irish otters are also killed on the roads, and habitat loss poses another grave threat.

While some residue from organochlorine pesticides can still be found in the spraints of Irish otters, levels are generally low. Some populations are starting to recover in the UK thanks to valiant conservation attempts, but we are very much not off the hook yet. If we are to save these adorable marine mammals, we must continue to designate riverbanks, marshes and coastlines around the world as special areas of conservation and set about the task of rewilding them. Only then may the otter’s prey return, and with it, the security of their species.

Carbon Neutral Lent: Week 1 – Food

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Welcome to the first week of Carbon Neutral Lent! The pancakes are gone, which means the time has come for spreadsheets. This week we will be looking at the messy and complicated topic of the carbon footprint of food. Don’t forget to head over to the CNL landing page to download the tracker spreadsheet which will allow you to estimate your carbon ‘foodprint’ at the end of each week by asking you one simple question! Also, come on down to our event in the Landmark pub in Dublin on the 3rd of March, where CNL founder Darragh Wynne will be joined by a variety of guests to talk about the carbon footprint of food. Come for the information, stay for the music!

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Our unusually high agricultural footprint is not, however, necessarily a result of our eating habits. It is because we make our money producing extremely high-carbon foods and then exporting them to other countries. To be precise, it is because we produce a whole lot of beef and dairy. Dairy cow numbers increased in Ireland by 27% between 2013 and 2018, in large part due to the removal of the milk quota in 2015.

This goes to show that the types of food we grow and eat can have a massive effect on our emissions. A kilogram of locally grown, in season carrots comes in at 0.25 kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). The same weight of beef is a whopping 17kg CO2e. In other words, pound for pound, beef produces 68 times more carbon than locally grown carrots.

Of course, the comparison is not so simple as this. A kilogram of beef contains about 5 times more calories and about 25 times more protein than a kilogram of carrots. Still, 5 times the calories for 68 times the carbon is a monster trade-off. Getting 1 calorie from beef produces around 14 times more carbon than one calorie from a carrot. Plus, carrots contain far more fiber and carbohydrates and far less fat than beef.

As for protein, how much you need depends on how much you weigh and how active you are. The rule for a sedentary person is that you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As a 70 kilo man, I would need 56 grams of protein per day. Conveniently, that is exactly the average recommended intake for a sedentary man. That’s about 3.2 Tesco beef burgers of 84 grams each.

Alternatively, you could get that protein from non-animal sources for a fraction of the carbon price. Quorn burgers, for example, contain 18g of protein per hundred grams. In other words, I’d need 3.7 Quorn burgers of 84 grams each to get my daily dose of protein. What’s more, the carbon footprint would be reduced by 90%!

Quorn is far from being the only low-carbon source of protein. We get protein from almost everything we eat. 100 grams of chickpeas, for example will give you 20 grams of protein. Soybeans are also a great source, with 100 grams containing 16.6 grams of protein.  It is easy to see how, over the course of a day, we can take in as much protein as we need without the help of meat.

It is important to note, however, that the recommended protein intake for someone who partakes in a strenuous physical activity like weight lifting or endurance running is considerably higher. Nearly twice as high, in fact, with strength and endurance athletes recommended to take in 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If I were to spend all day in the gym, then, I would need 119 grams of protein per day. For active people such as this, protein shakes can provide the rest of the daily protein that you are not getting from food. Plus, there are vegan options available!

That brings us nicely to the question of how much better veganism is for the environment than vegetarianism. One study found that you can cut 1.82 kilograms of CO2e per day by switching from a medium-meat diet to a vegetarian one. The same study found that switching from a vegetarian to a vegan diet would save nearly a kilogram more carbon per day. In other words, going vegan is a fair bit better for emissions.

Cheese is the third highest-emissions food after beef and lamb. That’s right, a kilo of cheese produces more emissions than a kilo of pork or chicken, although it must be said that cheese is usually eaten in much smaller quantities. Vegan food also uses less land and water to produce than eggs and dairy, further reducing a vegan’s impact on the environment. Whether or not food comes from animals is perhaps the best indicator of how high-carbon it will be. If you hadn’t guessed, animal products are almost always worse. But why is meat so bad for the environment?

The simple answer is that growing crops and eating them is a far more efficient process than raising animals for food. That is because you have to grow a lot of crops to feed to the animals while they grow big enough for slaughter. It uses much less land and water and produces far fewer emissions to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source of the nutrition; the plants.

Plants build their bodies using carbon they take from the air, water they take from the ground and energy they take from the sun. They don’t need to move, digest food, pump blood around their bodies or keep themselves warm and that saves them a lot of energy.

Animals, on the other hand, burn up most of the energy they take in from plants by walking around, breathing and keeping warm. If you feed a cow 100 calories in the form of grain, only 3% of those calories will be returned in the meat. That means that you have to feed them a whole lot more over their lifetime than you will get back in the end.

In the case of ‘ruminant’ animals like cattle and sheep, there is the added problem of methane. Ruminants are hoofed mammals that have a 4-chambered stomach, one of which is called the rumen. Microbes break down the ruminant’s food in a process known as ‘enteric fermentation’, which produces a lot of methane. To be precise, it produces 30% of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Water use is another major consideration, with a 2003 study finding that “Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”. I worked out for a previous article that eating a pound of beef wastes about as much water as leaving your shower on for about 15 hours.

Eating plants is not just low-carbon. It is also gives a much higher yield per hectare than producing meat. In a much-cited study from 2013, Emily Cassidy et al. found that “given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people”.

In other words, if it were not for the fact that we waste plant nutrition by feeding it to livestock, the population could grow to 10 billion by 2050 (as projected) and we could still feed every person on earth with ease. According to the same study, “36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet”. That is a huge amount of waste considering how many people do not have enough to eat.

That brings us very neatly to the incredibly important topic of food waste. In Ireland, over a million tonnes of food are wasted each year. The excellent Climate Queens podcast figured out that that’s enough to fill Croke Park with food waste twice each year. Globally, one third of all food produced goes to waste. That is more than enough to feed the roughly 11% of people in the world who are chronically malnourished.

If food waste were a country, it would have the third highest emissions of any country on earth after the US and China. That is because approximately 10% of all carbon emissions globally come from food waste, costing the world about €550 billion per year.

Food waste is a win-win area in which we can both seriously cut emissions and increase the total food available for consumption. Try keeping a journal of which foods you are throwing out. If you find that you are regularly throwing out half a tub of coleslaw, for example, you can start buying a smaller tub. It really is that simple!

There is so much more we could say about the carbon footprint of food. I haven’t even touched on the emissions from fertilizers, how different types of feed affect the emissions profile of livestock or the very important topic of animal cruelty in agriculture.

If you take two things away from this piece, however, let them be that
a) you should cut down on meat and dairy as much as possible and
b) you should eat the food that you buy.

If we all made these two simple rules a priority when it comes to which food we choose to buy, we could massively cut emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. In the process, we would also increase the land available for crop production, forests, wetlands and renewable energy projects. Plus, we would save a whole lot of money and water.

What are you waiting for?

Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

For Peat’s Sake: Bogs, Bord na Móna and the Climate

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.

-Seamus Heaney

Abbeyleix bog in Co. Laois is a rare example of a bog that has not been utterly destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Many of the peatlands I saw from my window on the bus down here were not so lucky. The barren and lifeless landscape of bogs that have been stripped bare is a common sight in the Irish midlands, and it is becoming more common every day. Abbeyleix very nearly met the same fate back in 2000. If it were not for the dedication and quick thinking of the community, the thousands of species in the bog would be homeless and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more carbon would be in the atmosphere instead of in the ground where it belongs. 

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

Peat forms because the water-logged and acidic conditions of a bog significantly slow the decomposition of bog mosses, also called sphagnum, causing a build-up of organic matter. Emissions from peatlands don’t just come from the burning of the peat; they also come from drainage. When the level of water in a bog (known as the water table) is reduced, this exposes more of the peat to the air. In this dry, oxygen-rich environment, the peat decomposes, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Despite owning only 7% of Irish peatlands, the organisation primarily responsible for the industrial extraction of Irish peat is Bord na Móna, a semi-state company which was set up by the government in 1934 under the name ‘the Turf Development Board’. Since the inception of Bord na Móna proper in 1946, the company has been responsible for the development of 80,000 hectares of Irish bogs. Back in 2016, Bord na Móna rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘Naturally Driven’ and tried to position themselves as environmental stewards. The journalist John Gibbons called this campaign “profoundly, irredeemably dishonest” and “an exercise in cynicism”. He also quoted An Taisce as saying “We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord na Móna would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”.

Abbeyleix bog had been owned by the De Vesci family since the early 1700s. In 1987, Tom De Vesci, who had previously attempted to have the bog designated as a heritage site, was coerced by Bord na Móna into selling the bog. “I was approached many times by Bord na Móna to sell it after my father died in 1983 and I always refused” Tom said in an interview. “But eventually I was informed that Bord na Móna would be taking ownership via a compulsory purchase order at a somewhat lower level of compensation than I would get if I sold it ‘voluntarily’ a few weeks earlier”. In 1989, Bord na Móna cut 66km of drains into the bog in preparation for future peat harvesting.

On Thursday, 20th of July 2000, Chris Uys, a member of the Heritage Company and now development officer for the Community Wetlands Forum, met with Jimmy Dooley of Bord na Móna to discuss plans for a walkway through the bog and to inform Jimmy of concerns regarding its development. The following day, locals noticed unfamiliar pieces of machinery on the bog, which had been delivered to the site by Bord na Móna overnight. Chris Uys raised the alarm in the community that development of the bog was about to begin. That Sunday, local resident Gary O’Keeffe parked a crane in the entrance to the bog under the guise that it had broken down during a bird-watching session in order to keep the rest of the machines out of the bog. By Monday morning, at least 50 people had gathered at the entrance to protest the development, with numbers swelling to around 100 by lunchtime.

After much pressure from the community, Bord na Móna finally agreed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in April of 2001. They found that the Abbeyleix site was of “little or no conservation value”, an assessment which both the Abbeyleix community and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) considered “incomplete and inaccurate”. An ecologist by the name of Doug McMillan was invited to carry out an independent assessment of the bog. Having only surveyed 20% of the land, Doug had already found over 500 species, and could reasonably conclude that the bog was home to thousands of species, including a butterfly which was protected by the EU. If Bord na Móna really had carried out an EIA, they had either done a poor job or they had lied about the results.

In 2002, An Bord Pleanála found that Abbeyleix bog was not exempted from the requirement for planning permission. This was the first time in Irish history that a peat development went through the planning permission process. Bord na Móna, in true form, took high court action against both the Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála. In 2008, an ecologist by the name of Jim Ryan carried out another survey, finding that only 1% of the raised bog was still intact and forming peat. I am stunned when Chris tells me that, like in Abbeyleix, only 1% of active raised bog in the country remains. In other words, we have degraded 99% of carbon-rich raised bog nationwide through drainage and peat extraction. In April of 2009, more than 20 years after they were cut, work began to block the drains in Abbeyleix. In April of 2012, the Abbeyleix community signed a lease agreement which meant that the bog would be in their control for the next 50 years, provided that it was primarily used for habitat restoration. David had beaten Goliath.

I met with Chris Uys in the lobby of the picturesque ‘Abbeyleix Manor Hotel’ on the outskirts of the bog. He has brought with him a textbook on peatlands and a folder packed to the brim with documents. When I ask him why peatlands are so important for biodiversity, he tells me that “the interesting thing about the biodiversity in peatlands is that the combination of plants and… the way they interact has a wider role to play than just purely the biodiversity that is there because it helps to retain water content, it has to do with carbon sequestration, and it supports other ecosystems”. He tells me that bogs are very important for breeding birds and that they link different ecosystems together like a natural corridor.

A walk through Abbeyleix bog feels like a walk through the history of this country. There is a calm here that soothes your aching bones like a hot bath. This is what is known rather robotically as a ‘cultural service’; one of many ‘ecosystem services’ provided by bogs like Abbeyleix. These somewhat stomach-churning terms are used by some environmentalists as an attempt to reframe the ecological crisis we have caused in the parlance of capitalism and thus convince business and industry to act. Gazing out over the endless beauty of this ancient landscape, I can’t help but think that it is downright insane to try and put a price on something that existed for so very long before our self-centred species ever dreamed up the concept of money.

Back in 1997, peat fires forced both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to close their airports for several days. The peat in question was burning over 1,000km away in Indonesia. Scientists have estimated that the CO2 released during this one fire was equivalent to 13-40% of the mean annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The carbon is not the only issue; the vast quantities of smoke released by the fire had serious effects on health, with studies showing decreased lung function in children who were present during the event. According to a study in Archives of Environmental Health, 527 people died in 2 months as a result of the smoke, with 58,000 cases of bronchitis and 1 and a half million cases of acute respiratory infection reported.  Fires like this have happened periodically over the last few decades, with one 2010 event in Russia leading to carbon monoxide levels in the capital that were 6 times the maximum acceptable level.

To the Irish, this all may seem like a distant threat, but were the Wicklow bogs to catch fire, the prevailing wind would carry all that lethal smoke right into the heart of Dublin. John Reilly, the head of the renewable energy branch of Bord na Mona, told me in an interview that “the biggest risk of wildfires is not posed by active peat production areas on drained peatlands, but rather the risk is high on virgin peatlands which are generally covered in vegetation such as gorse and heather”. He said that the major concern when it comes to fires was actually stockpiles of cut peat.

DCU-based peatlands expert John Connolly tells a slightly different story. “In one way he is right that the risk of fire (i.e. fire starting) on a drained industrial peatland may be less if all vegetation is removed. However, a lightning strike could start a fire and in that case drained peatlands are much more vulnerable than virgin (i.e. wet) peatlands”. Dr Connolly sent me a link to a 2016 study in ‘Nature’ which states that “the high burn severity of drained tropical/temperate peatland fires suggests that large-scale peatland drainage and mining in northern peatlands over the last century has also likely made managed northern peatlands more vulnerable to wildfire than natural (undrained) peatlands”. While there is an element of truth in what John Reilly told me, then, it seems that it was not the whole truth.

In 2006, an area of dried and cut peat the same size as Abbeyleix bog caught fire in the Irish midlands, leading to the evacuation of several Longford residents. While it was the stockpiles that caught fire rather than a bog itself, the incident shows how damaging peat fires can be. Smoke from the fire travelled 10 miles north. One Rooskey resident who had suffered from respiratory problems in the past was quoted in the Irish Times as saying “at the moment I am closing my windows and hope that will be enough”. A 2002 study of the Indonesian haze disaster, however, suggests that staying indoors only gets you so far in a situation like this.

They found that indoor concentrations of particulate matter were about half of what they were outside. That was a form of particulate matter known as PM10 because the individual particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter. They could not find any difference, however, in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 micrometers or less. The researchers said that “perhaps the size of particulates was so small as to travel and intrude into any space; the concentration of pollutants was extremely high, and the indoor environments of buildings in Indonesia were rarely exempt from these pollutants”.

When asked about Mr Reilly’s claim that the presence of vegetation increases the risk of wildfires, Chris Uys replies that “from that point of view yes, that is so. But if you are talking degraded peatlands, degraded means that you have dried. For me, there is a higher risk… when the peat below the surface is dry and there is an ignition of anything above, it starts to smoulder underground as well”. Chris tells me that Abbeyleix has suffered from this very problem; “we had a fire at one stage, and you could just see smoke. On nearer investigation it was actually starting to simmer underground. It just keeps going”. While vegetation fires on the surface are manageable, the dried peat below can keep burning for a very long time and release a lot of carbon before it is extinguished.

Thankfully, Bord na Móna have been trying to get out of the peat business for over a decade, with over half of their revenue coming from non-peat-related activities in 2019. John Reilly, who has been doing excellent work building renewable energy infrastructure with the company, tells me that “Bord na Móna developed the first commercial wind farm in Ireland back in 1992, on a joint venture basis with the ESB, so we have some considerable experience in the sector”. They also announced last year that they were closing 17 of their active bogs, with the remaining 45 bogs to be closed within 7 years. However, some have said that this amounts to greenwashing, since the planned closures are of bogs that have been exhausted and are no longer profitable. As UCD peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson put it in an interview with the Guardian, ““It’s a bit of a smokescreen. It’s all revenue-driven… they’re are all done and dusted”.

Bord na Móna is not the only company extracting Irish peat, though it is the largest. A company called Harte Peat has come under fire recently for carrying out large-scale peat extraction without a license in the Derrycrave bog in Westmeath. Photos released last year by ‘Friends of the Irish Environment’ showed that Harte had been cutting the peat right down to the mineral layer below, leaving almost no possibility of recovery. Peat that had formed at a rate of about 1 millimetre a year until it was several meters thick was stripped down to the bone in the geological blink of an eye, depriving animals of their homes and future humans of their right to security. This tragedy has played out countless times across the country over generations, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the beautiful and important landscapes which once dominated the Irish midlands.

The degradation of Ireland’s peatlands doesn’t just threaten our health, it also threatens our wallets. New regulations require that we start reporting the emissions from our peatlands to the EU from 2021. Ireland is already facing hundreds of millions of euro in fines for failing to meet our emissions targets and this will bring us further off target. Chris tells me that “We were fined 150 million for this already… and we’re gonna be fined again until these people stop… Bord na Móna don’t get fined. It’s the government that gets fined. They merrily go on. They can go on for another 30 years if the government allow them. But we get that fine”.

When asked to what extent Ireland will be able to cope with these changes to EU law, Dr Connolly tells me that “the government and the EPA have made some investments in funding research and research infrastructure over the past few years. These investments will allow scientists to provide some of the detail that is required in the legislation, however much more investment is needed in research, infrastructure and rewetting/restoration as peatlands in Ireland are severely degraded and emissions are unknown in many areas”. But does this mean more fines for the Irish government? “It depends. If peatland emissions can be reduced to zero by the start of the 2026 reporting period, then no. However, current emissions are estimated to be about 11 million tonnes of CO2 … The reduction of these emissions to zero over the next six years will be very challenging.”

I ask Chris if Abbeyleix bog became a net source of emissions following the drainage and, if so, if it is back to being a net sink. “Possibly we are not a net sink yet… the higher the water level the less carbon emissions,” he tells me. “Then it gets to a point where it changes and it starts to give out methane emissions. There is a sweet spot where you have the least emissions. The other problem with degraded peatlands is that if you don’t have vegetation formation, (sphagnum), then it does not negate the methane”. The blocking of the drains has not been in vain, however. Whereas only 1% of the active raised bog remained in 2009, Chris reckons that as much as 10-15% has recovered in the intervening decade.

It takes time for peatlands to regenerate; all the more reason to block as many drains as we can as soon as we can. The light is beginning to fade from the grey clouds overhead as I slip and slide across the wet wooden walkways. The first few drops of rain begin to fall once more on the mounds and ditches of Abbeyleix. This beautiful landscape serves as both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope. It showcases the terrible consequences of degrading our bogs, but is also a reminder that with elbow-grease, dedication and time we can undo some of the wrongs we have inflicted on the natural world.

Gas in the Tank: How Methane could be the Future of Fuel

New research has shown that it may be possible for us to convert methane into fuel cheaply, quickly and on a large scale. The key to this energy revolution will be exploiting a type of bacteria known as methanotrophs. Methanotrophs are incredibly abundant in nature. They account for 8% of all heterotrophs on earth (organisms like us that have to ‘eat’ rather than photosynthesising their food). These incredible bacteria are capable of converting methane into methanol very easily, a process that has been referred to as the holy grail of modern chemistry. If we could perform this conversion as easily as methanotrophs, we could seriously cut down our GHG emissions.

Almost all the talk of climate change in the media focuses on CO2, as it is the most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) on earth. It is not, however, the most potent. Not by a long shot. Over a 20-year period, methane is around 86 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2. This is worrying since humans have caused, in just 300 years, an increase in global methane from 715 parts per billion to 1774 parts per billion, the highest level in 650,000 years. That works out to about a fifth of all global warming, making methane the second most significant GHG on earth. Roughly 60% of all atmospheric methane is the result of human practices like large-scale animal agriculture and poorly-managed landfills.

Before I get going, I would like to acknowledge the paper “Biotechnological conversion of methane to methanol: evaluation of progress and potential” as it proved to be an extremely useful research source on this topic.

New research has shown that it may be possible for us to convert methane into fuel cheaply, quickly and on a large scale. The key to this energy revolution will be exploiting a type of bacteria known as methanotrophs. Methanotrophs are incredibly abundant in nature. They account for 8% of all heterotrophs on earth (organisms like us that have to ‘eat’ rather than photosynthesising their food). Methanotrophs were first identified way back in 1906 but in the 1970s, 100 types were isolated, characterised and compared in a landmark study. These incredible bacteria are capable of converting methane into methanol very easily, a process that has been referred to as the holy grail of modern chemistry. If we could perform this conversion as easily as methanotrophs, we could seriously cut down our GHG emissions.

In May of 2019, researchers at Northwestern University identified the cofactor involved in catalysing the conversion of methane to methanol, providing a huge step forward in our understanding of how methanotrophs carry out this incredible process. Methanotrophs are known to carry out the conversion using an enzyme called methane monooxygenase (MMO), but the researchers have now identified the copper ion which accelerates this process and the site at which that copper ion is bound.

Methanol is an energy-rich fuel that can be used for everything from automobiles to electricity generation. In fact, methanol can be put straight into a standard internal combustion engine, meaning that we would not need to design new types of engines in order to make the switch. Burning methanol in an engine produces 20-25% less GHGs than burning petrol, but even these emissions are cancelled out by the fact that methane is removed from the atmosphere to produce the fuel. In other words, it’s already better than burning petrol, and the fact that it removes methane makes it better still. Remember, methane is far more potent than CO2 as a GHG. By converting methane to methanol then using the methanol as fuel, you are essentially converting methane to CO2, which causes much less global warming. The conversion happens at a ratio of 1:1, meaning that simply converting methane to CO2 would result in a serious decline in GHGs in the short term. In addition, the energy you get from burning the methanol means that you don’t have to burn as many fossil fuels, further lowering the carbon footprint of the process.

Right now, we are able to convert methane to methanol. In fact, we have been doing this on a relatively large scale for quite some time now. In 2015, the global demand for methanol was 70 megatons. The difference between current methods of converting methane to methanol and using methanotrophs instead is the temperature and pressure under which the reaction can be carried out. Current methods require temperatures of 900 degrees Celsius and pressures of 3 megapascals. In other words, that is roughly the same temperature as lava and roughly the same pressure that is exerted on a submarine 1,000 feet below the sea. Methanotrophs can perform the same conversion at room temperature and atmospheric pressure (the normal pressure at sea-level). This is known as ‘ambient conditions’ and describes the temperature and pressure wherever you are reading this article (provided you are not reading this in a volcano or a submarine).

The problem with needing extremely high temperature and pressure to perform the reaction is that it requires a lot of energy, cancelling out many of the gains made with respect to GHG emissions. That energy needs to come from somewhere and 9 times out of 10 that somewhere is fossil fuels. In addition to this, the process is currently too expensive to be economically viable, a factor that hugely influences whether or not a technology enters the mainstream. If we can harness methanotrophs’ ability to convert methane to methanol at ambient temperature and pressure, the process will become far cheaper, far quicker and far more environmentally friendly.

There is an important distinction to be made between low affinity and high affinity methanotrophs. Low affinity methanotrophs are found only where there are high concentrations of methane (more than 40 parts per million). So far, every strain of methanotroph we have isolated has been low affinity. High affinity methanotrophs, on the other hand, can perform the conversion at ambient levels of methane (less than 2 parts per million). Isolating and exploiting high affinity methanotrophs is the real holy grail, since this would allow us to convert the methane in the air all around us into fuel rather than just being able to perform the conversion in places where concentrations of methane are high.

Another way this process might reduce GHGs is by creating an incentive for oil companies to stop ‘flaring’ natural gas when exploring for oil. As you bring the oil to the surface, natural gas comes with it. To prevent pressure building up in the pipes, the gas is burned (which is why you sometimes see oil wells with flames shooting out the top). 4% of all natural gas which is extracted worldwide is flared. Using 2017 figures, that works out to 139 billion cubic meters of gas wasted every year (nearly 1 and a half trillion Kwh). That is slightly more energy than is used each year in India, a country with nearly one and a half billion people. Since natural gas is around 85% methane, development of cheap methane-methanol conversion techniques would provide an incentive to capture and store the gas rather than burning it unnecessarily and releasing huge amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere in the process. This is an example of how we can use our current knowledge of low-affinity methanotrophs to begin cutting down on emissions.

Transporting methane is currently very difficult, since it is a gas under ambient conditions. Liquids take up far less space than gases and are also far more energy-dense. By converting methane to methanol, we seriously boost how much potential energy can be carried by a single truck. By cutting down on how many trips are required to transport the same amount of energy, we also cut down on the fuel required for transportation. Efficiency gains such as this will be vital in our transition to a sustainable society if we wish to retain our current levels of comfort.

Burning methanol is also far cleaner than burning petrol, releasing half the carbon monoxide and just 1 eighth of the nitrous oxide. Over a 100-year period, nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 265-298 times greater than CO2. The reason you don’t hear as much about it in the media is that we release far less nitrous oxide into the atmosphere than we do CO2 or methane. The problem of climate change is so huge and so urgent, however, that we need to look at ways to reduce every GHG all at once by whatever means possible. An eightfold reduction in nitrous oxide from transport would go a long way.

One possible issue with this technology is that methane is only more potent than CO2 in the short term (a century or two). It could be argued that since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, we are simply pushing the problem back without solving it. To this I would reply that we are dangerously close right now to setting off feedback loops which would take climate change out of our hands and make the problem unsolvable. By procrastinating on this massive issue, we give ourselves time to develop technologies that can capture CO2 on a large scale as well as technologies that can provide us with clean energy. In other words, we are in desperate need of a band-aid.

Another objection might be that the process provides a financial incentive to keep fracking for natural gas when really we need to be leaving it in the ground. This objection, I think, holds more water. While burning methanol is more environmentally friendly than simply burning the natural gas, it is less environmentally friendly than not burning it at all. One way to respond to this is by arguing that it is naïve to think that we will stop extracting natural gas and oil any time soon. Global energy demand is huge and rising and these needs must be met somehow. It is better to meet them using efficient new technologies than to continue the practices that got us into this mess in the first place. In addition, if we can develop this technology to the point where we can remove atmospheric methane rather than just converting natural gas to liquid, it could actually result in negative emissions, meaning that we would be simultaneously meeting our energy needs and reducing our impact on the environment. The potential for this technology is massive.

Conversion of methane to methanol under ambient conditions and on a large scale would be a huge step forward in developing the green energy infrastructure that is required if we are to transition to a low-carbon world. I’ve said it so many times before, but it bears repeating that if we don’t make this transition very soon, the consequences will be extremely severe for humans and other animals around the globe. We are talking about a worldwide shortage of food and water, an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters, rising sea-levels and much more.

Climate change is happening right now all around us, from the wildfires of California to the hurricanes of Puerto Rico. How we respond in the coming years determines whether this will be a difficult century on one hand, or a complete transformation of the Earth that could last for hundreds of thousands of years on the other. So long as we can limit warming to below the levels required to trigger feedback loops, I have faith that humans can ride out the storm relatively unscathed. It is worth remembering, however, that this is the greatest challenge our species has ever undertaken. This is why the development of technologies like methane to methanol conversion is so critical and so time-sensitive. This tech will not solve the problem all by itself, but it will give us some time and breathing room to overcome the larger issue.

ExxonMobil vs The State: How Governments Can Lower Corporate CO2 Emissions

A report released in 2017 found that over half of all global emissions since 1988 have been produced by just 25 companies. When you take into account the 100 most environmentally damaging companies, known as the ‘Carbon Majors’, that figure rises to over 70%. Even so, we are constantly told that individual actions like using canvas bags and taking the bus will be enough to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. The truth is that the onus is on the major greenhouse gas emitters like Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil to simply stop extracting and distributing fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the pressures of the competitive market mean that they are not going to do this without a push.

First published in UCD College Tribune

Updated 15/10/2019

A report released in 2017 found that over half of all global emissions since 1988 have been produced by just 25 companies. When you take into account the 100 most environmentally damaging companies, known as the ‘Carbon Majors’, that figure rises to over 70%. In October of 2019 (during rebellion week), the Guardian reported that just 20 companies have been responsible for 35% of all emissions since 1965; the point at which experts say that both government and industry were fully aware of the dangers of fossil fuels.

Even so, we are constantly told that individual actions like using canvas bags and taking the bus will be enough to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. The truth is that the onus is on the major greenhouse gas emitters like Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil to simply stop extracting and distributing fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the pressures of the competitive market mean that they are not going to do this without a push.

As things stand, it makes more financial sense to use fossil fuels than renewable alternatives. However, there are many ways that governments can curtail the emissions of Carbon Majors through financial and legal incentives. A fundamental of the modern nation state is that the legislator should tax practices which they aim to discourage in society. This is why smoking is so expensive. Governments realised that by taxing cigarettes at an extremely high rate, they could better public health and make some serious dough while they were at it.

By raising the price of smokes, governments can gradually decrease the number of smokers which in turn decreases the amount they have to spend on the treatment of diseases like lung cancer and emphysema. In theory, this increase in revenue can be put towards things like medical services and anti-smoking campaigns. This essentially means that governments can shift the costs that smoking imposes upon society onto those who actually smoke.

Similarly, governments can tax the use of dirty fuels which emit CO2 and use the extra cash to invest in renewable energy research. Some form of ‘carbon tax’ has already been introduced in 46 countries, including Ireland, Canada and Australia. Carbon tax means that fuels which result in higher carbon dioxide emissions are taxed at a higher rate, a policy which is all ‘stick’ and no ‘carrot’.

By taxing carbon, governments can cut into the profits of companies who would otherwise be making a killing on fossil fuels. The hope is that Carbon Majors will then be incentivised to move toward renewable energies like solar and wind power. While a higher carbon tax would mean an increase in the prices of fuels like petrol, coal and gas for the consumer, it would also mean that clean energy sources could become more competitive.

The other side of the coin is renewable energy subsidies; the ‘carrot’ to the ‘stick’ of carbon tax. The government invests money in order to lessen the costs of energy from sustainable sources. The top 6 countries that subsidize renewables spend a combined total of 40 billion dollars a year. Unfortunately, we spend more than 5 trillion a year globally to subsidize fossil fuels. That’s 6.5% of the global GDP.

Subsidies can go a long way towards decreasing the financial loss Carbon Majors and consumers suffer when switching to cleaner sources of energy. By both taxing fossil fuels and subsiding renewables, governments can gradually make it so that renewables are the sounder investment. Since financial considerations are the only considerations corporations are likely to take on board, the use of both of these policies could go a long way towards reducing the footprint of Carbon Majors.

While straight-up carbon taxes are gaining popularity worldwide, there is a similar but more widely used group of policies called carbon ‘cap and trade’ schemes. These schemes involve setting a limit on how much CO2 can be produced in total then either giving or auctioning ‘credits’ to companies which equal that limit. If companies exceed their allowance, they are liable to incur very serious fines or even legal action. One way that companies can exceed their allowance is by buying (or trading) credits from other companies who are using fewer fossil fuels than they are allowed.

With a carbon tax, companies can just take the hit and produce as much CO2 as they can afford. The advantage of cap and trade schemes is that while Carbon Majors still take a huge financial hit by using fossil fuels, there is a fixed upper limit on how much they can produce. Another advantage is that companies which can reduce emissions cheaply can then sell their remaining credits to companies which are struggling to meet their allowances and make a profit. In this sense, cap and trade schemes combine the carrot and the stick into one efficient bundle.

The main criticism of cap and trade schemes is that it allows Carbon Majors to carry on polluting as they’ve always done since it is still cheaper to pay for extra credits than to switch to 100% renewable energy sources. However, smart legislation such as lowering the upper limit on carbon emissions and thus raising the price of credits at auction should be enough to make these schemes workable. The main obstacle to these amendments, as with all climate-protecting plans, is that the companies who are profiting from the destruction of the environment can use their astronomical profits to lobby for the weakening or outright removal of cap and trade schemes in the countries in which they operate.

Perhaps the main issue with putting a price on carbon is that the costs will be incurred not by major polluters but rather by the poorest people in society. When governments make it more expensive to sell fossil fuels, fossil fuel sellers make it more expensive to buy them. This kind of ‘climate austerity’ means that the plumber who needs to drive their van all day for work takes a huge financial hit while the bottom lines of the companies who sold the plumber the petrol remain despicably intact.

A possible response to this line of reasoning is that the consequences of leaving climate change unchecked will affect working class people far more severely than an increase in tax. The CEO of Exxon Mobil will not suffer from the food or water shortages brought on by climate change. Truckloads of water will be delivered to their mansion to hydrate their petunias while the working class people die of dehydration. The question becomes whether we are willing to die for our principles, deeply held as they might be.

Another consideration is that only about 10% of the emissions from carbon majors come from the extraction and transport of the fuels. The remaining 90% comes from ordinary people like you and me burning those fuels to power our cars and heat our homes. Given the catastrophic consequences of climate change, I have to say that any government action which reduces energy consumption is positive in my books. Yes, we need system change like building renewable energy infrastructure and getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies, but system change takes time. In the meantime, we must all do our best to reduce our individual consumption.

A more useful response to the problem of climate austerity is that revenue from the tax should be given as rebates to people who cannot afford to pay. Tax the carbon majors and they will raise their prices. Those who can afford to pay extra for fuel do (i.e. those above a certain income threshold) while those who cannot afford it are given rebates which could more than cover the extra cost. This would mean incurring all the benefits of carbon pricing described above without hurting the plumber who is simply trying to make a living.

It is imperative that we do everything we can to curb the power of Carbon Majors to continue their crusade against the environment. Carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes are just two ways in which we can do this and must happen in tandem with every other tactic we can think of. In an ideal world, we would simply make it illegal to extract and burn fossil fuels. Unfortunately, no government is willing to take such drastic measures against entities that in many cases have more money, and thus more power, than the governments themselves.

The CEOs of Carbon Majors are not necessarily evil people. In their eyes, the livelihoods of their many employees rests on their shoulders. What we need to convince such people is that while workers can probably find new jobs, it is very nearly too late to reverse the catastrophic effects of global warming. The question they must ask themselves is whether they would rather be responsible for a few lay-offs on one hand, or the deaths of hundreds of millions of people on the other. The fact is that those are the only options.

Getting High on Grass – Can Plants Really Fuel a Plane?

Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

Updated 11/09/2019

In the wake of recent studies showing how dangerously close to the brink we are when it comes to climate change, it is more important now than ever to seriously consider every possible alternative to environmentally damaging fossil fuels. One such alternative comes in the form of biofuels. Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. I’ll be concentrating my efforts on recent attempts by the scientific community to make grass a viable fuel for transportation.

Grass is the most abundant plant on the planet. In my home country of Ireland, more than two thirds of all land is covered in naturally growing grass. If we could refine and perfect the process of turning grasses into fuel (grassoline), this could be a real contribution towards slowing the march of climate change. The problem right now is that it is expensive and inefficient. Many scientists in the field, however, think that given time and money, we could tap into this huge source of unharnessed power and perhaps help to save the planet in the process.

The reason grass in particular is being considered as a biofuel is not because it is necessarily the most efficient plant to use, but rather because of its abundance and willingness to grow in fields that are inhospitable to food crops, known as marginal lands. Another reason that grass is attractive as a biofuel is that it is not really needed for anything else. Other candidates for biofuels (like wood, sugarcane and soybeans) have the disadvantage of being useful for things like furniture, rum and tofu.

But why aviation fuel? One reason is that while cars are slowly turning electric, it is unlikely that planes will follow suit any time soon. This means that in the near future, cars could be powered by renewable sources whereas planes will continue to require liquid fuel. The other more pressing reason is that travelling by plane is far worse for the environment than any other mode of transport. This is down to two factors; first, planes are less efficient than other modes of transport in terms of emissions per passenger mile. Second, planes allow us to travel a far greater number of miles than we would otherwise be able to travel. The carbon footprint of flying from London to Hong Kong and back again is about a quarter of the average UK person’s annual carbon footprint.

The idea that we could use grass, algae and other plants to produce aviation fuel is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. The fossil fuels which we currently use are themselves made of organic matter that has, over a very long time, undergone a natural process called pyrolysis. Human beings have been using the process of pyrolysis for our own gain for thousands of years in the form of charcoal burning. Pyrolysis involves separating materials into their constituent molecules in the absence of oxygen. This means, very roughly, heating up the material to a specified temperature, covering it, and allowing it to separate into liquid, solid and gas. These products can then be refined into fuels. Recently, it has been found that microwave heating produces a higher pyrolysis yield than traditional methods since it can be done entirely in the absence of oxygen and at a very precise temperature. Another benefit is that the characteristic ‘hot spots’ of microwave heating aid in pyrolysis.

You might be thinking that grass is an important source of food for livestock. The beauty of using grass as a biofuel is that this resource would not be lost. The solid by-product of grass pyrolysis can still be fed to livestock. What’s more, by removing the liquid constituents, the feed can be preserved much longer than fresh grass cuttings. In the UK, biofuels already account for nearly 3% of all road and non-road mobile machinery fuel, but with the predicted change in efficiency given a few years, they could eventually account for a lot more than that.

Right now, scientists can only produce a few drops of biofuel from grass in the laboratory. Tests carried out at Ghent University in Belgium show, however, that there is a potentially very efficient energy source in grass if we can learn to harness it correctly. In April 2017, the researchers at Ghent found that a certain type of bacteria (clostridium) can be used to metabolize certain grasses into decane, a key ingredient in both petrol and aviation fuel. While this breakthrough cannot yet be used effectively, it is key knowledge that will inform future research into better biofuel technologies.

Hang on, you might say, if refining plant matter gives us the same fuel as we are already using, then why is it better for the environment? Surely biofuels release the same amount of CO2 as fossil fuels? This is indeed true. The difference is that the CO2 in living plants has only recently been absorbed from the air by the plant and is simply being released again. As the grass grows, it sequesters CO2 from the air. When it burns, that recently absorbed CO2 returns to the atmosphere to be trapped by the next batch of grassoline. Because of this, biofuels are said to be ‘carbon neutral’. With fossil fuels, the CO2 has been absent from the environment for a very long time, trapped underground. By burning it, we are releasing extra CO2 rather than what was already there.

A major obstacle to biofuel efficiency growth is that governments and companies are not willing to invest heavily in something that may not yield solid results for years to come. This is simply short-sightedness. The science will continue to improve. Lack of investment only slows down the process. The people who invest heavily now will surely see a huge return in a matter of years. Another well-known obstacle in the way of all renewable energies is the huge sums of money tied up in the fossil fuel industry. The industry is worth about 7 trillion USD globally. No wonder, then, that lobby groups are able so easily to sway policy-makers.

Biofuels are controversial among environmentalists, since they come with a number of downsides. Perhaps the most worrying is that every square foot of land which is used to produce the fuel is land that could instead be used to nurture biodiversity. Species are currently being lost so quickly as to constitute the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history. For me, using food crops like corn as feedstock is entirely off the table, since it opens the door to a future in which rich elites use corn-fed biofuel to fly away on their holidays while depriving poor people of food which is vital to their survival.

Another drawback is that biofuels are not very efficient when it comes to land use. According to Mike Berners-Lee, using solar panels instead to generate the power for flying would require 270 times less land than growing wheat for biofuel. The problem, however, is building a good enough battery. Right now, 1 kilo of jet fuel carries about the same energy as 20 kilos of premium lithion-ion batteries. One ray of hope came in March of 2015; ‘Solar Impulse 2’ began its attempt to become the first entirely solar powered plane to fly around the world. The journey was arduous and long for the two pilots. One of the pilots was named Bertrand Picard, a Swiss medical doctor who who was already the first person to fly around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon. Captain Picard of the USS Solar Impulse finally landed the plane in Abu Dhabi on July 26th 2016, from the spot where it had departed 505 days earlier.

Regardless of what figures like the US president may say, climate change is a very real and very serious danger. Biofuels are just one example of the many ways in which we can combat this danger, but they are one which will continue to grow in importance for years to come. The question is whether our money would be better spent developing renewable energies like solar and wind which require far less land and are thus better for wildlife conservation. When it comes to planes, however, grassoline may help to ease the transition to a low-carbon world. Every little helps in the fight against the huge and menacing entity that is climate change.

Some Further Reading and Research Sources