Global CO2 emissions generated by extensive consumption of the world’s non-renewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal have been rising at dizzying rates, driven by the growing demand for energy, food and products. To limit global warming to 1.5˚C and reduce the worst impacts of climate change, it’s time we look beyond mitigation actions to a more climate positive approach.
The key focus is on shifting to sustainable and renewable sources to replace the use of fossils. However, solving the problem also requires proactive carbon removal. Steps like reforestation and changes to agricultural practices are important to bring climate positive action, explains Purmonen.
“How do we make products and generate energy in a way that doesn't exploit the world’s resources? How do we re-utilize and circulate everything in the best possible way? Those are the questions we need to be answering,” he explains.
Waste and residue-based feedstock streams are not enough to replace fossil fuel use
Talking about the future of the bioeconomy, Purmonen adds that for the past decade the European biofuels sector has increasingly focused on waste and residue-based biofuels.
“This means utilizing waste oils from restaurants or animal fats to create fuel. This is where many companies in the sustainable renewable fuel space are at today — creating energy and fuels out of waste streams to replace fossil fuels.”
It is good to note that UPM Biofuels does not currently use any animal fats or used cooking oils as raw materials.
The real question is how will we increase the sustainable feedstock base beyond waste streams in our increasing attempts to fight climate change?
The industry has grown rapidly through companies vying for the same waste bio-oil fractions. We will need new, additional feedstock solutions to keep up with the pace of growth.
“ The market focus is moving towards a new residual feedstock stream that is not oily feedstock but residual solid biomass. This is the key feedstock for advanced biofuels in the future,” Purmonen reveals.
“Sustainable land use will have big potential to drive the bioeconomy and biofuels sector when done right. The attitude must be soil first,” emphasizes Markku Purmonen, UPM Biorefining’s Vice President of Strategy.
Developing technologies to convert residual solid biomass streams
UPM Biofuels team has been working on tackling the big question of how to convert residual solid biomass streams to higher value uses, such as renewable fuels and chemicals, and get them up and running to markets where they are needed most, say in the aviation, maritime or the road transport sector.
The need to increase the alternative, renewable feedstocks for advanced biofuels has been clear for long.
“Although we at UPM Biofuels have been utilizing a residue from chemical pulping — crude tall oil — and continue to do so, we have worked for more than a decade to understand and develop our technologies for the conversion of residual solid biomass feedstocks to advanced biofuels,” Purmonen explains.
The key word for future feedstocks is additionality
The vision for future sustainable feedstocks goes even further. On top of residual solid biomass, we need to create additional sustainable biomass.
This will need to be created through regenerative land use — a practice where earlier deforested, degraded or idle land is used to grow plants that produce oil and protein. Plants also store carbon and improve soil health while producing renewable oils that can be used to replace fossil raw materials in the fuels and chemicals space.
While biofuels are only one answer in the vast pool of climate solutions, they play an important role in accelerating resource efficiency.
“Optimally, biofuels can simultaneously become a carbon mitigation and a carbon removal solution. The key word is additionality — creating new oil-producing and carbon sequestering biomass that wouldn’t otherwise exist,” Purmonen states.
Adopting the additionality approach to create solutions with multi-fold impact
UPM has been working on additionality through regenerative carbon farming projects that utilize existing agricultural environments to produce bio-oils in idle periods.
“For instance, in South America where soybean is typically grown during summer, in certain areas, winter is the idle time of the year when fields are underutilized, if used at all. By planting productive crops during this period, we not only produce protein but also renewable oils that can be allocated for replacement of fossil fuels at the same time. And all this is done by improving soil health and productivity,” Purmonen says.
Another avenue to bring the additionality approach to biomass creation and consequently to biofuels is reforestation which builds on UPM’s strengths in forestry.
“In such a concept, we create an additionality impact when we plant marginal or degraded land with trees that also produce renewable oil through fruits and without cutting down trees. At the same time, the trees capture and store carbon, soil biodiversity improves, and additional proteins are produced to be utilized for feed production,” explains Purmonen.
The bar must be set high.
“We believe in high impact, multilayered solutions. Sustainable land use will have big potential to drive the bioeconomy and biofuels sector when done right. We should not only think about how to use land but find ways to add positive impact to the equation. The attitude must be soil first,” Purmonen emphasizes.