Author: Emily Govan

Net-Zero Emissions by 2050? Together We Can….

Author: Rumbi Nhunduru

Since 2014, the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College London has been providing world leading thought leadership and interdisciplinary research on the role of natural gas, hydrogen and biogas/biomethane in future low carbon energy systems. This year, the speaker for the 2020 Annual Lecture on 10 December will be Professor Maroto-Valer who is leading the development of the UK Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC). Professor Maroto-Valer will be speaking about industrial decarbonisation and discussing the role of gas for a green economic recovery. And now, more than ever, as we are starting to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, decarbonisation is critical for green economic recovery. But, can we really achieve net zero targets?

Since the turn of the First Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, continuously rising greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels, have been a cause for concern and the main fuelling factor for climate change and global warming. Consequences of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, (more specifically, carbon dioxide-CO2) that have already started to be experienced globally include rise in sea levels, melting of ice caps and glaciers and increased occurrence of severe weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves and flooding. In the UK for example, the occurrence of extreme weather events has increased in recent years with the highest ever temperature of 38.7°C having been recorded last year (2019) [1]. More recently, through June to August 2020, the country experienced heat waves with temperatures in excess of 30°C. The UK has also experienced an increase in heavy rainfall and flooding.

The notion that we need to make urgent, drastic and fair measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global warming has gained traction and momentum in recent years. Pressure has been mounting on governments worldwide to take immediate action. At the Climate Ambition event on the side-lines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid (Spain), 73 UNFCCC parties, 14 regions, 398 cities, 768 businesses and 16 investors agreed to work together towards achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050[2]. Whilst other major economies such as Japan and France have set targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to take the lead and pass legislation to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 [3]. According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2020 World Energy Outlook report, to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality, emissions must peak in 2020 and drop by over 40% by the year 2030 [4]. The U.S is one of the the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter thus its contribution will also be highly significant if we are to meet the net zero emissions target.  In June 2017, the then US president, Donald Trump, announced that the US would be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. In his electoral campaign, the newly elected president of the United States, Joe Biden, stated that it will be in his agenda to re-join the Paris Agreement in the early years of his presidency. With the UK set to host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021, all eyes will be focused on the US.[5]

Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will require large scale investment and transition to the use of clean, renewable energy as well as adopting and implementing new technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).  Meeting the ambitious target of the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign requires collective, collaborative action from stakeholders across industry, government and academia. In the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions (RCCS) at Heriot-Watt University, we have also been playing our part in contributing to the masterplan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Our research takes a systems approach ensuring the integration of different technologies at systems level, particularly for sectors difficult to decarbonise. Our projects include all aspects of the CCUS chain from capture through to transport, utilisation and storage, as well as hydrogen and negative emissions technologies.

In March 2020, the UK government announced that a budget of £800m has been set aside for the deployment of CCS infrastructure. This CCS Infrastructure fund will put into action the large-scale plan to capture CO2 from major industries and transport it by pipeline to be stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs under the seabed in the North Sea [6]. On the 17th of  November 2020, the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, unveiled a ‘10-point plan’ backed by £12bn and aimed at supporting and accelerating the process of decarbonising the UK and initiating a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. The plan includes an extra £200m of funding to develop at least two carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s in addition to the £800m budget set aside in March 2020 for CCUS and hydrogen technology deployment. Another two clusters are also set to be developed by 2030.  This move will make the UK a global leader in terms of  CCUS and hydrogen technology [7]. With the UK set to decarbonise, potential CCUS deployment sites include Aberdeen, Liverpool, Port Talbot, Scunthorpe, Southampton, Nottingham, Grangemouth, Teesside and Humberside. The ‘Humber’ is the UK’s most carbon intensive industrial cluster with over 55,000 people employed in manufacturing and other energy intensive industrial sectors. Decarbonising the Humber would undoubtedly have a highly significant impact. This will be carried out in conjunction with key players in the energy sector and is set to result in the development of Europe’s largest joint hydrogen production and carbon capture project by 2026 [6].

As the UK edges closer towards CCUS deployment, it is important to harness all available talent in this transition and nurture the next generation of engineers and scientists to deliver the energy transition. In this regard, an Early Career Professionals Forum specifically for CCUS, complementary to the already established UK CCUS Council was recently established and launched by the UK Government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The aim of this forum is to provide a platform for professionals in the early stages of their career who are working in the CCUS sector to provide their views on key strategic issues to do with CCUS deployment as well as to drive forward efforts to meet the net zero target by 2050. The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be held in November 2021 under the theme #Together for Our Planet. On a personal level, as the Heriot-Watt RCCS representative in the CCUS Early Career Professionals Forum, I feel highly honoured to be able to play a small part in contributing to the masterplan through engagement with other members of the forum and other relevant stakeholders from government, industry and academia.

As the saying goes, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together- Vincent Van Gogh”. Net Zero by 2050? Indeed, together we can!

by Rumbidzai Nhunduru

Research Centre for Carbon Solutions (RCCS), Heriot-Watt University



  1. A.Walker. Jun 2019. Met Office Confirms New UK Record Temperature of 38.7°C. The Guardian.,%2C%20Kent%2C%20in%20August%202003
  2. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). External Press Release. Climate Ambition Alliance: Nations Renew their Push to Upscale Action by 2020 and Achieve Net Zero CO2 Emissions by 2050.
  3. GOV.UK.
  4. International Energy Agency (IEA). World Energy Outlook Report 2020.

  1. Q. Schiermeier. The US has left the Paris climate deal — what’s next? Nov 2020. Nature Research Journals.
  2. D. Laister. Mar 2020. £800m Carbon Capture Pot Brings Humber’s Biggest Budget Wish Closer to Home. Business Live.
  3. M. Burgess. Nov 2020. UK PM backs CCS and hydrogen in 10-point plan. Gasworld.

Seven easy-peasy ways to make Brazilian ethanol industry more sustainable

Author: Dr Pedro Gerber Machado, Researcher

Clickbait! The truth is, it is not easy. The ethanol industry and several academics have created a storyline for Brazilian ethanol: it combats climate change by producing renewable energy, promotes rural development creating jobs and represents one of the biggest prides for the country when it comes to national industry. Are they right? Well, in parts. Their focus on the positive side of ethanol production is purposeful, naturally. Still, many aspects of the industry need improvements ASAP. Here, I discuss 7 points that would help ethanol become MORE sustainable. It is essential to highlight the word MORE, simply because sustainability is not a point of arrival, but the road itself. Nothing is sustainable, only on the road to becoming more sustainable, but this is subject for another post.


The potential for biogas production in Brazil is well known due to the country’s economy based on agriculture. What is not so well known is that considering municipal solid waste, agriculture and ethanol industry, biogas could substitute all of the natural gas consumed in the country in one year, plus another 25% to spare (considering 90% methane). Today, Brazil only produces 1.5% of its potential. Still, the increase in biogas volume in the last couple of years has reached 36% p.a., showing that it is getting momentum within the energy and electricity sectors in the country. The most significant potential for biogas production is in ethanol mills, using vinasse as feedstock, a residue from ethanol distillation. Not only the potential is enormous, but the costs of biogas production can reach levels cheaper than imported LNG, diesel, and even Brazilian natural gas1.

Biogas production increases the share of renewable energy in the country’s electricity matrix. It could also free-up the lignocellulosic residues (today mostly sugarcane bagasse used for electricity generation) for other more advanced products, which brings us to our next 2 points.

Second-generation ethanol

Second-generation ethanol is ethanol produced from lignocellulosic biomass. In the ethanol industry, bagasse and even sugarcane straw brought from the field are sources of lignocellulosic material. Up to now, only 32 million litres of second-generation ethanol is produced in Brazil, which evaporates (pun intended) in comparison to the 28 billion litres from sugarcane juice fermentation (first-generation)2. With a target of 2.5 billion litres of second-generation ethanol produced in 2030, the road is long, but necessary nonetheless. The use of residues for ethanol increases the production per hectare of land and consequently decreases direct and indirect land-use change. In combination with biogas, each mill could increase ethanol production from residues while maintaining its electricity generation. Besides, processing bagasse generates other opportunities than second-generation ethanol, especially from its lignin fraction, considered the only biologic substitute of fossil-based aromatic chemicals, for example.

Biobased chemicals

Biobased chemicals are often praised for reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and increasing the added value of biomass. In reality, producing chemicals to reduce GHG emissions in Brazil is like having cancer and an ingrown toenail and visit the doctor for the toenail. However, hundreds of technologies and products derived from biomass, residues or not, in the last two decades have proven to be not only technically feasible but also economically attractive, which should be seen by mill owners and investors as an opportunity. Many times, authors (including myself) compare second-generation and biobased chemicals with electricity as if it was one or the other. But when you look at the national chemical market, the volume would mean very few average-sized mills, and it would not pose threats to second-generation ethanol. For example, approximately 30 sugarcane mills of 2 million tonnes of sugarcane annually could supply all propylene consumed in the country in a year3.

Small-scale mills

With average and large-sized mills producing second-generation and biochemicals, small-scale plants should gain space in fermentation mills. Either for self-consumption or the ethanol market, ethanol could represent a new source of income for farmers and cooperatives, increasing the social pros of ethanol. The implementation of small-scale mills will not be possible only based on the market, due to lower economic viability of small-scale mills and specific policies would need to be created to reduce ethanol production concentration in the hands of few investors4.

Social responsibility

The ethanol industry in Brazil has used corporate social responsibility communication as a way to highlight efforts to portray itself as a clean source of energy. Analysing past communications, one will find the preference to discuss agro-environmental themes. When it comes to social themes, the interest is timider. Significant education and labour conditions programs have been dropped by the ethanol industry, leaving a gap in social change. The National Commitment for the Improvement of Labour Conditions in Sugarcane Production, launched in 2009 and abandoned in 2013 due to severe violations of labour practices in companies that had gained their social seal of conformity, was a trilateral agreement between the government, private sector, and labour unions to promote the adoption of better labour practices in the sugar and ethanol industries. The retraining program “Renovação” by UNICA (Sugarcane Industry Union), which aimed at retraining laid-off sugarcane cutters following harvest mechanisation, ran from 2010 until 20135. It retrained a disappointing 5 thousand people (of course the program was praised as a success), compared to the 128 thousand jobs lost in sugarcane cultivation in the last ten years. UNICA also stopped publishing its sustainability report in 2010, which does not help with transparency when it comes to the social issues that surround the sugarcane industry6.

For the ethanol industry to become more sustainable, the lives of the people directly and indirectly affected by sugarcane production need to be improved, and the industry has an essential role in this development. Education, the health of local communities, labour conditions and decent income have to be prioritised in long-term programs and planning by the industry.

Integrate food/forest/energy systems

It is time to start rethinking agriculture based on monoculture and harmonising forestry and agriculture practices is fundamental to improve wildlife protection and increase contributions to climate mitigation. It can be accomplished in many ways, either with spatial approaches or temporal approaches, like crop rotation. The problem is that the productivity of integrated systems is still contested compared to monocultures. This requires research assessments across multiple systems, and policies to incentivise landowners and farmers to engage in diverse land use management systems7.

ZERO deforestation in Brazil

Since 2008 when Searchinger most famously brought to light the problem of indirect land-use change (ILUC) caused by biofuels8, Brazil has spent millions of dollars in research to refute the idea. The truth is it makes sense, regardless of the actual level of deforestation indirectly caused by biofuels. In the last ten years, Brazil lost 12 million hectares of natural forests to pastures and pastures lost 1.1 million hectares for sugarcane9. You need incredibly complex models to determine the exact piece of land that ultimately ended-up with sugarcane. Still, for every 100 hectares of natural forests lost for pastures, nine were converted to sugarcane. To cut ILUC problem at its root (again, pun intended) Brazil should seize deforestation. On top of that, the country gains a more sustainable agriculture as a whole, and, of course, maintain the utterly important ecosystem services provided by our natural forests.

There you go, my seven ways to make Brazilian ethanol more sustainable. All of these require research, investments, policies, regulation and law enforcement and, on top of that economic attractiveness. I didn’t say it was easy, did I?


  1. Nota Técnica: N° 002/2010 – Panorama do Biogás no Brasil em 2019; Foz do Iguaçu, 2020;
  2. Barros, S.; Rubio, N. Biofuels Annual – Brazil; USDA; São Paulo, 2020;
  3. Machado, P.G.; Walter, A.; Cunha, M. Bio-based propylene production in a sugarcane biorefinery: A techno-economic evaluation for Brazilian conditions. Biofuels, Bioprod. Biorefining 2016, 10, 623–633, doi:10.1002/bbb.1674.
  4. Mayer, F.D.; Feris, L.A.; Marcilio, N.R.; Hoffmann, R. Why small-scale fuel ethanol production in Brazil does not take off? Sustain. Energy Rev. 2015, 43, 687–701, doi:10.1016/j.rser.2014.11.076.
  5. Benites-Lazaro, L.L.; Giatti, L.; Giarolla, A. Sustainability and governance of sugarcane ethanol companies in Brazil: Topic modeling analysis of CSR reporting. Clean. Prod. 2018, 197, 583–591, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.06.212.
  6. Relação Anual de Informações Sociais (RAIS). Access only with login at
  7. Richard, T.L.; El-Lakany, H. Agriculture and forestry integration. In Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the gaps; SCOPE 72, 2015; Vol. 72, pp. 1329–1341 ISBN 978-2-9545557-0-6.
  8. Searchinger, T.; Heimlich, R.; Houghton, R.A.; Dong, F.; Elobeid, A.; Fabiosa, J.; Tokgoz, S.; Hayes, D.; Yu, T.-H. Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change. Science (80-. ). 2008, 319, 1238–1240, doi:10.1126/science.1151861.
  9. Estatisticas uso da terra. Available online:


By Dr Pedro Gerber Machado, Researcher

Pedro’s biography

Blog: Productivity Pathways for Meeting Farming Demand Sustainably

Matheus Mansour is a final-year undergraduate student in Industrial Engineering at the University of Sao Paulo’s Polytechnic School. Matheus is from Brazil and is interested in statistics, operations research, machine learning and tech businesses in general. He is currently working on his capstone project where he applies neural networks to build a forecasting model for farming production in Brazil. In this blog, Matheus writes about this project and explains how its methodology can be used as a step to guide public policy towards a more sustainable future worldwide. 


Much has been said about sustainability over the past 30 years. Starting from the basic definition of satisfying the needs of the present without compromising the capacity of future generations of satisfying their own needs, there are many aspects that must be taken care of to ensure an overall positive outlook for the generations to come.

One such aspect concerns taking action to combat climate change and its impacts. It is known that the current climate change is mainly caused by human activity (i.e. by people burning fossil fuels and converting land from forests to agriculture, thus releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Regarding the latter, the incentives for such behaviour are plentiful: with an ever-growing population and limited land supply, natural coverage areas are being deforested in order to grow crops and meet the consequential rising farming demand. Specifically in Brazil, for instance, it is estimated (FAO) that 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost to deforestation over the past 50 years.


In addition, more than two thirds of the national gross CO2 emissions come from land use, land-use change and forestry (FILHO et al., 2010). As carbon dioxide is one of the main drivers of climate change, an appropriate national-level set of public policies to avoid deforestation is thus expected to bring high dividends. This has to be done, however, while still allowing the productive sector to meet agricultural and livestock demand of an expanding economy so as to not harm the country’s development.

If deforestation is to be avoided without compromising on a reduced output and exports, it is necessary to increase farming productivity. This, however, cannot be done as the need arises. Public policies are necessary and should be planned well ahead. It is necessary to identify the needed and sufficient improvements in productivity that allow for meeting future farming demand with the current levels of land supply available for agriculture and pasture. In case of assessing possible reforestation policies, it is also necessary to address the consequent needed increase in productivities that will lead to the demand being met.

Our project is then constructed in two main phases. First, we need an accurate mid to long-term projection for the baseline output of the main agricultural crops and livestock in Brazil, with occasional deforestation. This will serve as a means to assess the natural development of internal and external farming demand to unfold. Since we wish to assess how a restricted (by policy) land supply will affect total output in the future, it is necessary to build a model relating those variables, whose relationship is by no means linear, as total output depends on a range of different internal and external factors. While other models use static methods such as time series to make output forecasts, they do not allow this scenario simulation, which is the core of our project. We therefore use neural networks to capture those intrinsic relationships between inputs and farming output. This way, we are able to simulate what would happen to production if we tweak the input drivers by policy-making to achieve our sustainability goals.

Lastly, we are left with the task of assessing an optimal set of productivity gains necessary for future scenarios without deforestation and with reforestation. This will hopefully be an essential tool to guide public policy today towards a future both sustainable and prosperous.

Student Project – Agricultural productivity pathways to avoid deforestation in Brazil: application of neural networks

SGI undergraduate student Matheus Mansour has been working on a project relating to agricultural productivity pathways to avoid deforestation in Brazil.

Many models are created with the objective of estimating some kind of economic output, either by a country’s industry or agricultural sector. Time series, general and partial equilibrium models and many other methodologies have been used in the past. However, with the advent of new deep learning methods, powerful tools could be of great use in planning and economic forecasting. In Brazil, a considerable share of GDP is produced by the livestock and agriculture sectors, which have considerable environmental impacts on land use-related issues such as deforestation and biodiversity loss. To avoid these impacts, it is necessary to plan ahead and identify the necessary improvements in productivity for the long ran, if deforestation is to be avoided.

Using data from the last 35 years and 11 of the most important agricultural crops and livestock in Brazil, neural networks will be trained and used as basis for the analysis of scenarios of productivity gains necessary to avoid deforestation in the country and evaluate how reforestation could affect the supply of future agricultural demand. This project is being developed in partnership with Prof. Celma Ribeiro of University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Student Project – Inserting lignin in the sugarcane mills product portfolio: A study using robust optimization approach

SGI PhD student Raphael Dutenkefer has been working on a project looking at insertion of lignin in the sugarcane mills product portfolio.

The use of residues from the sugarcane in industry has been of considerable interest in the last decade. There is a great interest in producing high added value products from residues that today are used solely for the generation of electricity. Lignin, one of the components of lignocellulosic residues derived from sugarcane, is a class of complex organic polymers that can serve as feedstock for the production of many chemicals, materials and even energy carriers. However, its processing technologies are still in an immature technological phase and need further development to become an economically viable option for producers and consumers.

In partnership with Prof. Celma Ribeiro of University of São Paulo, Brazil, this project intends to deeper understand how lignin could improve the economic efficiency of sugarcane mills and what are the best processes being developed today, from an economic perspective. Using a methodology to define the best portfolio for a certain range of products, this project intends to evaluate the investments, maintenance costs, selling price and efficiencies necessary to make lignin a viable feedstock for materials, chemicals and energy carriers.