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Ideas are the real drivers of history

Ideas are the real drivers of history

Globally, the demand for both food and energy is expanding. And this will have a major impact on the environment, specifically through climate change, with the potential to bring droughts, floods, diseases and geopolitical conflict over resources and raw materials.

Jennifer HolmgrenIt's clear that food security is inextricably linked to the health of our environment, which is in turn linked to our energy future and its carbon footprint.

Fossil fuels have long been the engine of economic and agricultural growth. But we must now take care to avoid the environmental problems we created with over-fertilisation and over-irrigation. We must ensure that the drive for energy does not adversely affect our climate, or reduce the availability of land or water for food production.

The world uses more than 85 million barrels of petroleum per day and global primary energy demand is growing at a rate of 1.6 percent per year – and it will double over the next 40-50 years. In addition, the International Energy Agency estimates we need to introduce more than  30 percent zero carbon fuels into the global energy pool to stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels.

Yet, as large a challenge as these numbers represent, they don't take into account the most important energy issue facing us today – international energy equilibrium. How do we ensure all people across all economies have equal access to clean energy while energy demand grows at such a rapid pace?

The answer is simple: new ideas. We will only be able to meet these challenges by using all the scientific tools at our disposal. Already the demands of climate change have resulted in innovations in both agriculture and energy with the development of crop varieties that can withstand drought, flood, extreme cold, and harsh soil conditions. New energy solutions that create low carbon fuels from waste gases, photosynthetic microbes and algae will mitigate GHG emissions, increase energy security and promote energy democratisation.

We need the world’s collective intellect to find answers. But solutions must be found at the regional level. Communities need solutions that integrate well with local requirements and leverage local resources. In the case of energy production, that could be using gases from local industry, agricultural waste products or biomass derived syngas from the gasification of municipal solid waste; for food production, tailoring seeds and farming methods to suit local conditions such as a new variety of rice called Swarna-sub1 that can survive underwater for more than two weeks, potentially revolutionising life for millions of farmers in flood-prone areas of India.

Sometimes when I think about the food, energy and climate change challenges facing us, I worry that we cannot get there from here. That perhaps these challenges are greater than we are. But I am quickly reminded that all things are possible with innovative ideas and teamwork. Indeed, these two things can change the world.

Dr Jennifer Holmgren is chief executive of LanzaTech, which has developed a novel gas-liquid fermentation process that produces fuels and chemicals from waste gas resources.