No, if you’ve ever listened to the Sustainable Futures Report you’ll know that I don’t deny the climate emergency, but there are many who do.
This week I’m talking about denialists and about those in denial. Also this week, hydrogen - should it be grey, green or blue, or is it a red herring? Should Alok Sharma - president delegate and key driver of COP26 - be driving a diesel car? As Biden and Boris both burnish their green credentials why are they both encouraging the extraction of more oil and coal? We close with an interview with the team at Bucha Bio: young entrepreneurs replacing a traditional material with a sustainable alternative.
Front Page News
Although Afghanistan has driven the climate emergency and everything else off the front pages, there are still articles and comment about that IPCC report on the inside pages, and denialists to condemn the message.
Steve Baker MP
One such is Steve Baker MP, interviewed in the i-newspaper. You may see him as a deliberate contrarian. He fought for the hardest of Brexits and he was a member of the COVID Recovery Group, which argued against continuing lockdown. He’s more rational than some denialists. He says, “I'm absolutely clear that climate change is a real thing, and that human-emitted carbon dioxide has contributed to it, and that we should do something about it. The idea that we should do nothing is dangerous and foolish.” But he says we will have a political fiasco if we don’t confront the cost of net zero, by which he means that if people believe that achieving net zero will make them worse off they won’t vote for a party that proposes it. He seems to be saying what I’ve been saying: we need a public information campaign to make the public aware of the issues and to get the public on side. He seems to be afraid that if people are not committed to climate action they will vote for extremist parties - like UKIP, or whatever it’s now called.
Global Warming Policy Foundation
Baker’s position should be viewed in the light of the fact that he became a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) earlier this year. Founded by Nigel, Lord Lawson, a former chancellor of the exchequer, in 2009, this organisation has been denying the consequences of global warming for nearly as long as I’ve been podcasting. It claims to be independent and states that, “The GWPF is funded overwhelmingly by voluntary donations from a number of private individuals and charitable trusts.”
“We have developed a distinct set of principles that set us apart from most other stakeholders in the climate debates:
The GWPF does not have an official or shared view about the science of global warming – although we are of course aware that this issue is not yet settled…”
The GWPF does not appear to have reacted specifically to the IPCC report, and that last comment suggests they may not even have read it.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times draws a parallel with attitudes to the COVID pandemic and shows how opinion in the US has divided on political lines at the expense of rational thought.
Five Denial Strategies
- Science denial - world scientists are all in a conspiracy together.
- Economic denial - it will cost too much to put it right.
- Humanitarian denial - we’ll have better weather and more productive agriculture.
- Political denial - no point in taking action unless other countries do.
- Crisis denial - it’s all so uncertain that we shouldn’t rush into things.
The article describes how every one of these arguments is false. I have some sympathy with No. 5 - we shouldn’t rush into things.
We’ve seen the consequences of not being properly prepared for the Covid pandemic, and for that matter for the Afghanistan withdrawal. We may not get a second chance to get our response to the climate emergency right. The tragedy is that we have seen this coming for at least 30 years - ample time to plan and prepare - and anything we do now risks being rushed. Let’s give priority to that public information campaign - that should be an international goal of COP26 - and at the same time the world must urgently make plans and test scenarios. That’s no argument for not carrying out immediate and obvious measures like flood protection and energy conservation.
Jacobin, which describes itself as a leading voice of the American left, says that while the IPCC report blames humanity for the climate crisis, the true culprit is capitalism, not the people. “It is capitalists,” they say, “who profit from the climate crisis while the poorest suffer. It is the capitalist system putting profit above all else that blocks decarbonisation while the world burns.”
Along the same lines the Byline Times, an independent UK-based commentator, warns that DELAY IS THE NEW DENIAL. Author Thomas Perrett reports that “As US President Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion climate plan last year, with the aim of achieving a carbon-neutral power sector by 2035, major oil and gas firms and lobbying groups paid for a number of Facebook advertisements which promoted fossil fuel usage.” The strategy, though, is no longer outright denial. Energy companies are casting doubt on the effectiveness of renewables and claim to be working to reduce their own carbon footprint. Some of their adverts describe natural gas as “clean, affordable and efficient” – despite the fact that the methane involved in its production is approximately 80 times deadlier for the environment than carbon over a 20 year period. And of course CO2 is released when it’s burnt.
Some of their propaganda is very much more subtle. Michael Liebreich an independent analyst and advisor, says that the oil sector is lobbying for inefficient hydrogen cars because it wants to delay electrification. This brings us to the difference between blue hydrogen and green hydrogen. (And there are many other colours of hydrogen - see a link to an explanation of yellow, turquoise, brown and others below)
Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis. Passing a current generated by renewable energy through water releases hydrogen and produces no greenhouse gases.
Grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas and the process releases CO2, so that when the hydrogen is used there are no GHG emissions, but the emissions have already been released in the production process.
Blue hydrogen is also produced from natural gas but the CO2 is captured and stored. More expensive; not common.
Grey hydrogen is currently the most common.
Natural Gas Market
Liebreich points out that it's in the oil companies’ interests to promote hydrogen because producing it provides a market for their natural gas. However he denies that hydrogen is the appropriate fuel for transport. His article includes a hydrogen ladder which shows all the possible applications of on a scale which goes from uncompetitive to unavoidable. Hence transport and domestic heating are better served by battery electric vehicles and heat pumps respectively, while there is no alternative to hydrogen for making fertilisers and for use in the food industry, shipping and steel.
UK Hydrogen Economy
This week the UK government published its plan for a world-leading hydrogen economy. The extensive press release includes plans to use hydrogen for applications which Liebreich identifies as uncompetitive. Dr Jan Rosenow, from the Regulatory Assistance Project, an organisation dedicated towards accelerating the transition to clean energy, said: "As the strategy admits, there won't be significant quantities of low-carbon hydrogen for some time. We need to use it where there are few alternatives and not as a like-for-like replacement of gas.
He said the plan confirmed that "hydrogen for heating our homes will not play a significant role before 2030. The government's strategy shows that less than 0.2% of all homes are expected to use hydrogen to keep warm in the next decade. This means that for reducing emissions this decade, hydrogen will play only a very marginal role.
There have been suggestions that green hydrogen is not as clean as claimed. Burning any hydrogen in air creates a combination of hydrogen and oxygen which is water. However the heat of the reaction may also combine oxygen with the nitrogen which makes up the majority of the atmosphere, creating nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas.
Let's turn to more positive news. Recently I spoke to an enthusiastic group of people whose aim is to help make this world a better and more sustainable place.
Anthony: I’m joined today by the team from Bucha Bio, led by Zimri T. Hinshaw, the CEO, and joined by Sanjay Kalra and Sullivan Draper. Welcome to you all to the Sustainable Futures Show.
Zimri: Hey, great to be here. Thank you for having us, Anthony.
Sanjay: Yeah, thank you so much.
Anthony: Well, it’s a pleasure. I’m always interested in anything sustainable, and obviously that’s what caught my eye. It’s the Bucha Bio synthetic leather product. But, of course it’s not the only synthetic leather in the world, so my first question is what’s different about it?
Zimri: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re creating a novel biomaterial from bacterial nanocellulose. Now, what’s different about what we are doing? A big part of what’s different is that what we’re doing is 100% bio-based, meaning that there are absolutely no petrochemicals, absolutely no PU (polyurethane), things like that. SO we’re 100% plant based, bacterial-based...that’s pretty different. And that’s the first thing, and then there’s a whole bunch of other things that are unique about using bacterial nanocellulose to create a textile, but that’s a good place to start.
Anthony: And obviously no animals are harmed in the process.
Anthony: The product, I believe, is biodegradable, but how does that actually tie in with its tensile strength and with its lifespan?
Sanjay: Sure, sure, that’s a great question. So essentially, bacterial nanocellulose is a version of plant-based cellulose that you see on bark and trees and plants. Now this cellulose is extremely cost-effective, very environmentally friendly. As soon as sme microbes get attached to it, they eat it up and it biodegrades. The tensile strength is very, very high, because it is a crystalline form of cellulose and everything is layered and netted together. That’s the advantage of using bacterial nanocellulose, instead of finding it from plants. So the tensile strength is very high and it biodegrades in 40 days in soil or ocean water. The microbes inside this environment and some luke-warm water, and it will biodegrade and melt away.
Anthony: Right, so that’s very sustainable, obviously. All part of the circular economy. You’ve got a diagram, which is effectively the circular economy, or the circular production process, on your website. It’s great when you want it to biodegrade, but not so great if you don’t. For example, I don’t know whether you’d make garments and clothing out of this product, and if you do, and you go out in the rain, does it start biodegrading?
Sanjay: Now, that’s a great question as well. And to combat this criticism that we often see, we have developed a unique biopolymer, which is, again, 100% plant-based. And so we coat our cellulose in this biopolymer. It protects against rain, UV sunlight, biodegradation when you don’t want it to biodegrade. So you can wear a raincoat made out of this, go out in the rain and be completely fine, but when you do want it to biodegrade, you just leave it in some lukewarm water, in some microbe-rich area and within a month or two, it will biodegrade by itself, so it’s completely compostable, as well.
Sanjay: So, essentially, the biopolymer is really protecting it.
Anthony: This product, this fabric, is available in a variety of colours. One of the traditional sources of pollution in the tanning industry, where you’re using animal leather is the dye. What are you using for dye?
Zimri: So, we use a selection of dyes, some of them are algae based. We work pretty closely with an organisation called Spira, Inc, which creates algae-based dyes from Spirulina and so we can do blue and red in that way. We use a lot of natural dyes like turmeric, walnut, etc. and that’s really our end-all-be-all, especially when we use this commercially and are producing hundreds of linear meters of this material every month, then it’s gonna be really important that we keep that full-cycle sustainability. In some of our prototypes we do use other dyes that are synthetic, but we’re looking to phase those out as we move past prototyping towards full commercial buyability. Pretty technical answer, but...
Anthony: So at this stage, you are coming out of research phase, but if I’m correct, you’re not yet at a commercial scale.
Zimri: Yes, I would say that we are heading there quickly, we are gathering a lot of brand partnerships and prototyping a lot of interesting garments with some very large fashion brands, very large automotive brands in the world, and sort of seeing those longer partnerships and where they want the material to go and then working out the last kinks in our own RND to figure out exactly what pathway we want to take to scale this technology up. We think we’re pretty close.
Anthony: I see, so this is a new product, so therefore it’s a new production process, new production machinery, new production plant, this just screams investment at me. Have you got the backing to take this to the next level?
Zimri: Yeah, we definitely have the backing to take it to the next level in terms of where we are coming from. So we are now an SOSV IndieBio alumni company, so back, probably sometime last year, we received our first investment from SOSV IndieBio of a quarter million dollars, with entrance into their biotechnology program, which we recently graduated from. And then moving into what we’re doing now is a 500k bridge round between pre-seed and seed investment rounds, where we will raise quite a bit more money and really establish our production facility somewhere nearby New York City. So, that’s exactly where we’re headed.
Anthony: The key question for anybody - any user, of course - is how will this compare on the cost with either traditional leather or with substitutes made from petrochemicals.
Zimri: Yeah, so we are positioning this to be a luxury product, a luxury biomaterial. We are looking for those kinds of clients to bring this to market, who share our similar values of sustainability and are going to pay more for that kind of value that we bring. In terms of cost, we are going to be significantly higher than premium leather is. I know, I see Anthony, his eyebrows went right up when he heard that! Yes, absolutely and actually, if you compare us to next gen material alternatives, we’re talking the mycelium or the mushroom based leathers, the collagen based leathers made in bioreactors, our price points are going to be slightly under theirs but everybody is pretty much two or three times the price of premium leather in that next gen luxury space, that’s also where we like to compete. So, we’re not in a race to the bottom, in terms of price point, unlike other brands that maybe are making something out of rubber and plant latex. Not naming any names but some companies are racing to the bottom in terms of price. We are not one of them.
Anthony: So you have got competitors who are also aiming to replace both animal and plastic false leather and similar fabrics, but just turning back a little bit, where did this all come from? Where did this start? Did you start wanting to develop your academic knowledge that you gained through university, or did you start out with an idea that you were looking to create something sustainable because of the situation of the planet and the climate emergency?
Zimri: You know, I guess the way I started the company really was more of a business mindset, in the mind that I studied economics in school and I’d always really wanted to do something really at the cutting edge of technology, but I saw a market. I saw all of my classmates, all of the people that I knew really cared deeply about sustainability in a similar way that I did, as a vegetarian myself. And so I saw the market, I saw an opportunity, and then I saw online people experimenting with kombucha and saying, “Oh, this is kinda fun. You can grow something that looks like leather, or kinda looks like a fun textile and I thought, well that can be much more than just an experiment, with the right team and the right backing, that could become an industry, and I think I could give that a shot.” And so I did. I started growing our first biomaterials out of my Temple University dorm room and shoe boxes, which my roommate loved. He did not love it. He was pretty sick of me after a few weeks of growing acetic acid underneath his bed but that’s kinda how it started. From very humble beginnings, with a dream and an opportunity that I saw.
Anthony: So coming out of your experience, have you got any messages that you’d like to give to people who are sitting in a dorm room and thinking about what they should be doing? Any advice about what people ought to be thinking about?
Zimri: Absolutely! I would say that... think about what you care about. Think about what you love to do in terms of your life, because if you’re not doing what you love then you’re wasting your time. For me, I would say that for any future entrepreneurs, look at creating whatever your idea is, don’t waste any time, create a prototype. So, either it’s a web app, and you just create the wire frame, whether it’s a textile, just make a version of it. It doesn’t have to be the real version, doesn’t have to be the final version, but create something people can hold, touch, or see. Then go pitch it and see if you can sell it to somebody or have someone sign up for it. But don’t stay in your head too long. Bring something into the world as fast as you can, because that’s how you’re going to get someone else to believe in what you’re doing.
Anthony: Well, thank you very much. This has been very interesting, and I think we need to stay in touch and see how things develop and how you actually progress on your journey towards full scale production. Sanjay, is there anything you’d like to add before we move on?
Sanjay: Sure, sure. So, I’ve heard you mention that we are a leather alternative, but we really like to brand ourselves as a brand new, novel biomaterial. You know, we have several different applications that we can use nanocellulose for, and textiles and the fashion industry is probably the first one that we’re going to try to conquer. But, you know, we can make paper, we can go into construction, there’s many more applications that we can go towards in the future to build this company. So, we really don’t like to be compared to leather because it’s a brand new material and has brand new specifications and has technical features, so we’d like to capitalize on that.
Anthony: Sullivan, how difficult are you finding it to spread the word? What sort of reaction are you getting from people when you tell them about this new product?
Sullivan: So, in general, people are actually really interested. It is sometimes hard to convey all of the pros that our company has over similar textiles, but once they understand how we really are completely sustainable, people are really interested in it and really excited about it because they think it’s going to be a good step in the right direction towards sustainability for the industry as a whole.
Anthony: Thank you for that. Well, I think before we wrap up, Zimri, have you got a final word?
Zimri: Maybe try it for yourself, maybe wear some samples, you know, touch it for yourself. Anthony, we’d love to get some of this in your hands, so you can feel the luxuriously soft handfeel of what we’re creating. Check it out, visit the website, visit the social media and we wish both our company and every other one of our competitors good luck and let’s make this happen because if we all win, then the planet wins, and I think that’s important.
Anthony: That must be key. If we all win, the planet wins. I think we’re all on the same line there. Well thank you to the three of you. Thank you all very much for taking part in this short episode of the Sustainable Futures Report and as I said, we must stay in touch for your journey and see how things develop. Thanks again.
Zimri: Thank you, Anthony, take care.
The team from Bucha Bio. One thing Zimri said seems to be a sensible philosophy: “Think about what you care about. Think about what you love to do in terms of your life, because if you’re not doing what you love then you’re wasting your time.”
Before I go
I mentioned Alok Sharma’s diesel car. There’s been concern in the popular press that as president-designate of COP26 he should set an example and drive an electric car. Yes, it's not ideal, but it's so, so trivial in the scheme of things. It will be more difficult at COP26 to persuade poorer countries to make sacrifices to tackle the crisis seeing that the UK as host country has cut its foreign aid to such nations.
New North Sea Oil
It will also be difficult to persuade them to give up fossil fuels when it sees the UK government authorising Cambo, the first of three new oilfields in the North Sea.
In the US comes an announcement from the Interior Department that the Biden administration will resume oil and gas drilling leases on public lands and waters—a practice President Joe Biden vowed to ban during his 2020 run for the White House.
State of Louisiana in a state
This is in response to a federal court ruling. The state of Louisiana sued the federal government over the pause in the oil and gas leasing program ordered by Biden earlier this year. The Interior Department said leasing would resume while the appeal process plays out.
"Federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing will continue as required by the district court while the government's appeal is pending," the DOI stated. Like the ISDS process - investor state dispute settlement - it appears that the law can frustrate rational and sensible climate action. At least Biden’s intention is clear, even if he’s frustrated for the moment. Or is it? The Interior Department approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. That includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office January 20.
You are probably not a denialist. Nor am I. One commentator suggested this week that unless we are changing our behaviour in order to reduce our carbon footprint in the light of the IPCC report then while we may not be denialists, we are in denial. Uncomfortable thought.
And that’s it, for this week.
Next week I’ll tell you about what’s coming up in September. Even though I’m having a break in September, I’ll be hosting two events at Yorkshire Environment Week. They are free, but you need to book on Eventbrite. Booking opens next week and you’ll find the links on the Events page of the Sustainable Futures Report website. They will subsequently be available on demand.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.