19/06/2024 10:41 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By: Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn

Climate change is no longer a distant concern but an immediate reality, with predicted effects such as sea ice loss, rising sea levels and intensified heat waves already underway. Despite longstanding warnings from scientists and governments, global average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a record high of 419 parts per million in 2023.

Numerous countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Australia, have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, underscoring global efforts to combat climate change. Protecting the environment and mitigating climate change require multifaceted approaches, spanning from forests to oceans and beyond.

While attention often focuses on complex technologies with scalability challenges or region-specific limitations, biological solutions offer promising alternatives. Integrating biology and technology, these solutions, including enzymes and microbes, present significant opportunities for fostering a healthier planet and addressing climate change.

Revolutionising Plastic Recycling with Enzyme Technology

More than 98 per cent of plastic originates from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, which contribute to over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, plastics produced from fossil fuels directly contribute to annual increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Opting for plastic reuse not only relieves environmental strain caused by plastic waste but also aids in curbing industrial carbon emissions. While pyrolysis stands as a reliable method for advanced plastic recycling, its high-temperature process poses challenges.

Nevertheless, the emerging biorecycling process, utilising specific enzymes to degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) at lower temperatures, presents a promising departure from traditional recycling methods. In this process, resulting monomers are purified and repolymerised into PET of comparable quality to virgin PET, leading to a significant reduction of over 50 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions compared to virgin PET production. Moreover, this technology enables the recycling of various PET materials, encompassing clear, opaque, and polyester-based textiles, to yield novel materials.

The Promise of Biological Carbon Capture

Carbon capture technology remains essential for mitigating industrial emissions, even as renewable energy options gain traction. The autonomous International Energy Agency emphasises that achieving net-zero emissions is nearly impossible without implementing carbon capture, utilisation and storage strategies.

In contrast to conventional methods like amine carbon capture, which relies on energy-intensive processes (over 100°C) and chemical usage resulting in toxic byproducts, biological solutions offer a cleaner and more efficient approach. By substituting traditional chemicals with enzymes, biological solutions make carbon capture more cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and user-friendly.

This innovative approach revolves around leveraging enzymes found in nature, such as carbonic anhydrase, which has existed for as long as life itself. Carbonic anhydrase is a versatile enzyme that naturally captures carbon dioxide from cells, converting it into carbonate for safe transportation through the bloodstream. Ultimately, this enzyme facilitates the conversion of carbon dioxide back into exhalable form, offering a promising solution for carbon capture.

Leveraging Biological Solutions in Renewable Energy Production

Generating renewable energy emits significantly fewer emissions compared to burning fossil fuels. Therefore, transitioning from fossil fuels, which currently contribute the most to emissions, to renewable energy is crucial for addressing the climate crisis.

While some countries have abundant renewable energy sources like sunlight and wind, others have ample agricultural waste or biomass. Instead of allowing these materials to remain as waste with no environmental value, biological solutions now facilitate the conversion of agricultural biomass into cellulosic ethanol, also known as second-generation ethanol. Unlike first-generation ethanol, which is derived from food sources like starch and sugar and often raises debates over food versus fuel, second-generation ethanol generally enjoys a more positive perception worldwide.

In the process of producing cellulosic ethanol, cellulosic biomass is first broken down into pulp in a pre-treatment step. Enzymes efficiently hydrolyse cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars, which yeasts then ferment into ethanol. Like first-generation ethanol production, cellulosic ethanol is obtained through distillation from the fermentation broth, with thin stillage and lignin cake serving as valuable co-products. The environmental benefits of cellulosic ethanol are substantial as it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by over 60 per cent and 80 per cent compared to first-generation ethanol and gasoline, respectively.

Integrating Biological Solutions into Climate Change Strategies

While making commitments to combat climate change is vital, it’s equally imperative to take immediate action toward achieving net-zero emissions. While biological solutions do not stand as the solitary remedy for the climate crisis, they are essential components and pivotal elements of a comprehensive strategy. Hence, it is imperative for nations to create specialised hubs dedicated to advancing these technologies. These hubs would function as focal points for research, development and distribution of biological solutions, uniting scientists, engineers, policymakers and industry pioneers.

Incentivising the adoption of biological solutions by businesses and industries is equally paramount. One effective approach is to offer financial incentives, which can be funded through carbon taxes. By redirecting taxes collected from carbon emissions towards sustainability initiatives, such as the adoption of biological solutions, a supportive framework can be established to encourage widespread implementation.

Additionally, the education system plays a crucial role in planting the seeds of awareness regarding the importance of biological solutions. By integrating education about these solutions into curricula, we can cultivate a generation of environmentally-conscious citizens who understand the role of biology in addressing climate change. This proactive approach ensures that future leaders and innovators are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to implement sustainable practices and drive meaningful change.

By embracing biological solutions and incorporating them into climate-change strategies at both governmental and educational levels, we can pave the way for a more sustainable future.


Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn, a chartered engineer and chartered environmentalist, is a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Malaysian Institute of Management. He is also the author of the book ‘A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry’.



(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)