China and Brazil fighting climate change

Commitment to COP21 in Paris reaffirmed on Li’s tour as low-carbon technology exchanges continue

Addressing climate change through cooperation on renewable energy, energy efficiency, forestry and agriculture was recently recognized by China and Brazil as the lynchpin of a sustainable development model as the two ‘emerging’ countries released their joint statement on climate change. The document, signed on May 19 during Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s Latin America tour, revealed few specifics beyond a commitment to developing the solar energy sector. But while this latest affirmation might seem like it offers few advances, the reality is that scientific cooperation and knowledge transfer between China and Brazil on low-carbon technologies has been going on at academic institutions for some time – with some impressive results.

As the first permanent platform for scientific cooperation between a Brazilian and a Chinese university, the China-Brazil Center for Climate Change and Energy Technology Innovation, has garnered much attention since former presidents Lula da Silva and Hu Jintao officially endorsed it in 2010. The Center brings together universities known to lead climate change and environmental science research in their respective countries; COPPE-UFRJ (Brazil) and Tsinghua (China), and aims to act as a bridge between the two allied countries.

“The Center wants to help Brazilians and Chinese get to know each other better and identify projects that are mutually beneficial,” says Liu Dehua, the Chinese director of the Center and a chemical engineering professor at Tsinghua University.

Liu’s research, which includes the production of biodiesel by using enzymes instead of chemicals like methanol to convert vegetable oils and fats into fuel,  has proven to be one of the most prominent and successful projects of the Center.

The process developed by Liu’s group has managed to obtain high quality biodiesel from low quality oils with high acidity rates. This means that oils such as used cooking oil, which China has in huge quantities, can be converted into fuel. One biofuel plant using the enzymatic process is already in operation in Hunan province, processing waste cooking oil collected from restaurants. Two others are in their final stages of construction.

This technology may help energy-hungry China to push for an increase in biodiesel production without compromising its food security policy, which tends to prevent the use of edible oils, such as those made from soybeans or corn, for energy consumption. And nor does it imply the same adverse environmental impacts related to first generation biofuel production, namely the expansion fuel crop plantations.

The chemical engineering department at COPPE/UFRJ learned about the project and quickly realised the opportunities for fruitful cooperation. In 2011, two researchers who had been working in the biodiesel laboratories at the Brazilian university were sent to China to learn this new process. The following year, with the support of the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology and equipment donations from Tsinghua, the bilateral project was officially inaugurated at COPPE/UFRJ’s pilot biodiesel plant.

According to Rejane Rocha, the researcher in charge of the project on the Brazilian side, the idea was to adapt the old biodiesel plant to run on both the traditional chemical route and the enzymatic route not only to compare results but also energy consumption, process duration and the performance of different raw materials. Results have shown higher performance rates using the enzymatic route to produce biodiesel from feedstock with higher acidity or humidity rates. Environmental performance is also promising; the enzymatic process consumes less energy and reuses the enzymes for multiple cycles. Since enzymes break down the oil’s acidic content, this process also produces fewer toxic residues.

“This way, we can explain to [the Brazilian biodiesel] industry, which is now well established, that the factories do not have to change or build new plants from the ground up; both technologies can be adopted simultaneously,” said Rocha.

This would allow biodiesel producers to shift between the two methods effortlessly based on the feedstock and other preferences.

Although this is perhaps the most developed project so far, it is by no means the only initiative fostered by the Center. Cooperation on thermo-solar energy, wind energy efficiency at micro-grid scale and a project comparing urban sustainability indicators in Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Washington D.C. are all under investigation.

The project comparing urban sustainability indicators, which also counts on the participation of the University of Virginia, aims to standardize performance indicators in areas such as energy intensity and greenhouse gas emissions. It seeks to identify the most promising areas for scientific cooperation between the three cities based on what each does well or less well in terms of sustainability. Results will be announced later this year.

Staff at the Center are also busy organizing the next World Bioenergy Symposium (WBS), which is alternately hosted by China and Brazil and will take place in Brasilia in November. More than 50 speakers from around the world are expected to attend. The Center is supported by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Cooperation (EMBRAPA), which also has a virtual laboratory in Beijing and plays an important role in scientific and agricultural collaboration between the two countries.

This time around, the proximity to state officials located in Brazil’s administrative capital is expected to attract more attention and participation from different government agencies and policymakers, hopefully cementing new and more ambitious bilateral cooperation on issues such as climate change, renewable energy and agricultural policy.

Bilateral cooperation on climate science is not an alternative to the UNFCCC’s international climate negotiations, it is an important complement to it – helping each country find the most appropriate ways to reach ambitious targets.