Arizona The green-brushed mountains of Arizona were the backdrop for Greenbiz 2020 and BP's announcement that it will become net-zero by 2050. Synthetic biology will likely be needed to get there. LAURA COLQUITT ON UNSPLASH
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Will Synthetic Biology Be In The Toolbox Of BP’s New Climate-Neutral CEO?

A few weeks ago I traveled to Arizona to be among the towering saguaro and pungent sagebrush as hundreds of business leaders met to discuss sustainable business practices. The event was GreenBiz, an annual gathering in the desert that attracts many of the usual suspects from various industries — Fortune 500 sustainability czars, green technology wonks, and impassioned members of NGOs.

“Greenbiz is the premier event for the sustainability community,” says Ellie Buechner, VP of conferences at the media and events company.

Arizona is an apt setting for such a conference. The state’s searing summers and frosty winters combined with its unique, arid ecology put it at severe risk from climate change. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of Arizona voters now say climate change is a serious threat.

BP was at the event. But what’s an oil giant doing at a green tech conference?

Bernard Looney, a longtime BP insider, was recently tapped as the company’s new CEO. He began at the firm as a drilling engineer in 1991, eventually rising to manage global exploration, development, and production of oil and gas. Under the old leadership, BP collected over $303 billion in revenue in 2018. It also says it was responsible for 415 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, roughly the same amount as Australia.

So, BP might seem an odd fit at GreenBiz. But its presence is likely part of a concerted effort by BP to shift its operations — and image — toward a greener future.

Aiming For Net Zero

On February 12, Looney announced BP’s ambition to become a net-zero company by 2050.

“We have got to change – and change profoundly. But it is more than having to change – we want to change, because it is the right thing for the world, and it is a tremendous business opportunity for BP,” he said in a statement.

How exactly BP intends to execute on this promise has yet to be defined; A detailed roadmap will come out in September, the company says. But a few points from BP’s new climate focus do deserve recognition:

  • BP’s new corporate purpose: “reimagining energy for people and our planet.”
  • BP’s entire corporate structure is being broken down and rebuilt to enable its net-zero goals.
  • BP will now advocate for “policies that support net zero, including carbon pricing.”

“The world’s carbon budget is finite and running out fast; we need a rapid transition to net zero,” Looney said. “We all want energy that is reliable and affordable, but that is no longer enough. It must also be cleaner. To deliver that, trillions of dollars will need to be invested in replumbing and rewiring the world’s energy system. It will require nothing short of reimagining energy as we know it.

Getting On The Bandwagon

I’ve written previously about how U.S. tech giants and other corporations are turning to synthetic biology as a key tool for building sustainable businesses. This booming industry is taking on everything from bio-designing cruelty-free beauty products to growing scratch-resistant cell phone screen, to storing all the world’s data in a teaspoon of DNA. Just last month I spoke to Asia’s richest man, Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani, who also owns the largest oil refinery in the world. He shared with me why he believes biology is poised to “lead the world.”

Synthetic biology’s potential to green the economy as it grows is difficult to overstate. Beyond obvious examples like pulling CO2 out of the air to make new products, engineered microbes are ready to help clean up the jet fuel business, put a stop to dirty synthetic fertilizers, and even to reduce the environmental impact of LEGO bricks, one of the world’s most popular toys.

Algae ponds

Synthetic biology can engineer algae to one day produce sustainable biofuels in industrial algal ponds like this one. EXXON MOBIL

In the petroleum world, ExxonMobil has partnered with scientists from Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) to develop a strain of algae able to convert carbon into an energy-rich fat that can be processed into biodiesel. And since 2007, BP itself has funneled over $300 million into the Energy Biosciences Institute, a partnership institution at UC Berkeley, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More recently, BP’s Biosciences Center, located in San Diego, has allowed BP to explore biology’s role in energy production and manufacturing.

Achieving Net Zero

Despite the courageous promises of people like Bernard Looney at BP, other CEOs still have their heads in the sand.

Many companies and industries were entirely missing from GreenBiz, including cement manufacturers (a major green-house gas offender) and a number of oil companies. Overall, only 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies were represented at GreenBiz. Do the others not have answers?

It wasn’t long ago that companies like Exxon were involved in misinformation campaigns about the true threats of climate change. The fossil fuel industry has obviously been a key driver of the problem. That may be why 20 percent of Americans—and a shocking 60 percent of Republican members of U.S. Congress—are still living in denial about mankind’s role in causing it.

But the climate is changing for green industry. Investors and consumers are increasingly demanding that big companies break with the status quo, before it’s too late.

Those who fail to do so will be left out to dry.

Follow me on twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology and space settlement

Thank you to Ian Haydon for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Reliance Industries, Ltd.—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.

Originally published on Forbes


John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Ian Haydon

Ian Haydon is a scientist and science communicator based in Seattle. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, RealClearScience, Salon, the International Business Times and more. He holds a master's degree in biological design and was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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