Conversion to Biofuels: A Path to Better Air Quality and Climate Policies

California is making strides in achieving its climate and air quality goals, and biomass is playing a key role in this transition. Biomass refers to renewable organic material derived from plants and animals. A recent study by the University of California, Davis, published in the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy, explores the various uses of biomass and identifies the best strategies for California to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 85% of 1990 levels by 2045.

Lead author Peter Freer-Smith highlights California’s abundance of biomass resources, which amount to as much as 54 million dry tons annually. These resources come from forests, wildlands, municipal solid waste, animal manure, and crop residues. However, not all biomass is equal, and it is crucial to utilize this resource effectively to produce energy while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

The study provides policymakers, planners, and waste reduction experts with valuable insights. By understanding the different uses of biomass, one can take action to maximize its benefits. Freer-Smith suggests changing technology or finding alternative uses for biomass that might have negative environmental impacts. Additionally, some biomass is categorized as waste, and it is essential to find sensible ways of disposing of it.

The research reviewed over 400 papers written between 2005 and 2022, examining biomass use in California and its effects on emissions. The study identifies 34 pathways that can reduce greenhouse gases or specific air pollutants, with 14 pathways achieving reductions in both categories. Conversely, 13 pathways, including wildfires and open burning, lead to harmful emissions.

Some of the recommended uses of biomass include combustion for renewable energy generation, biodiesel production, and conversion to biogas through anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digesters, specifically, have positive effects when converting agricultural, livestock, food, and water waste.

On the other hand, wildfires, open composting of animal manure, and disposal of municipal solid waste without producing landfill gas are classified as detrimental pathways. Even the burning of forest material for prescribed burns and crop byproducts is considered harmful. The study suggests that it would be more beneficial to transport such biomass to power stations and burn it to generate energy, as this approach is more aligned with climate policies and improves air quality compared to burning on-site.

The research also highlights the development of innovative pathways to replace fossil fuels, meet climate goals, and contribute to the bioeconomy. Utilizing biomass for renewable energy or electricity generation, with controlled combustion and the possibility of carbon capture, is seen as the most favorable approach for climate policy and air quality.

The study’s findings provide valuable guidance for California and other regions looking to harness the potential of biomass for sustainable energy production. By adopting the right pathways, we can achieve climate and air quality objectives while reducing reliance on fossil fuels and promoting a greener future.

Authors: Emily C. Dooley, Jack H. Bailey-Bale, Caspar L. Donnison, and Gail Taylor
Sources: UC Davis, Global Change Biology Bioenergy






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