BIOCAP seeks major funding boost to implement research into use of biomass to reduce dependency on fossil fuels

Guest Contributor
February 12, 2001

An ambitious initiative to conduct research into the potential for biomass as an alternative source for energy, chemicals and materials is turning up the heat on potential federal funding sources to exploit Canada's so-called Green Advantage. The Kingston ON-based BIOCAP (Biosphere Implications of C02 Policy in Canada) hopes to build a collection of research networks that focus on optimizing carbon uptake from the atmosphere. Research will be directed towards assisting industry, governments and other groups in developing strategies and technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

With Canada's signing of the Kyoto agreement in 1997, governments have been struggling - mostly unsuccessfully - to develop strategies and programs that will reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. BIOCAP's strategy of supporting research to inform the policy process and assist industry in adopting less harmful practices targets two areas where biomass holds the most potential - agriculture and forestry. Its backers believe that significant environmental benefits can be derived from using biomass as a clean and renewable source of energy, and that the two targeted sectors can be revitalized by finding new markets by using biomass to generate energy, chemical and material resources for industry.

In addition, reduction of greenhouse emissions could be potentially lucrative if nations agree to the use of carbon credits which can be bought and sold by agricultural, forestry and industrial firms.

"There's a lot of low-hanging fruit out there. There's been no mandate out there until 1997 and the Kyoto agreement," says BIOCAP executive director and scientific research director Dr David Layzell. "Before that we put no value on getting carbon out of the atmosphere and no economic value to forests as carbon sinks...We have a large research capacity in Canada but many sectors don't work together. We need to have a lot more coordination around that research effort."


BIOCAP currently receives a total of $400,000 annually in multi-year funding from industry, the Ontario and Alberta governments and a one-time grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). It has initiated a modest research program, but its research agenda requires a much larger funding base of $3-6 million annually. As a national, not-for-profit foundation, it is focusing its energies on federal departments that have a stake in understanding and using Canada's biomass to meet Canada's obligations under the Kyoto agreement.

The NSERC grant and BIOCAP's current search for new funding sources come in the wake of BIOCAP's narrow loss in the open competition for new Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCEs) in 1999. Layzell says his organization came in fourth out of a field of 12 hopefuls, but only three new NCEs were funded.

"There was a recognition of the initiative and the strength of our industrial sponsors. NSERC accepted the NCE proposal and gave us $1 million," he says. "With that funding we've started two initiatives this year and set up a national system to measure green house gas fluxes, or the movement of gas from the atmosphere into the ecosystem and back again."


In addition to the creation of research networks, BIOCAP has established two advisory committees on eco-system greenhouse gas management (agriculture and forestry) and bio-based products (biomass as an energy and chemical resource). The research networks and the subcommittees will both report to an overview committee.

"We've been doing this for three years - developing initiatives - and its time to move to the funding phase. We need the carrot to accompany the stick," says Layzell, adding that he expects a response from government by the beginning of March. "And to deal with longer-term environmental problems in this nation, we need to establish a strong communications program to address the valid concerns of environmental groups and others."

NSERC has also targeted BIOCAP as a prime candidate for its NSERC Innovation Platform (NIP) concept, which would see the granting agency enter into flexible arrangements with external organizations to accelerate research in areas deemed to have national importance (R$, January 29/01).

"I strongly support it. We need a program like the NIP for peer review and accountability. We're working very closely with NSERC," says Layzell.


Guided by the contention that Canada must take responsibility for its greenhouse gas emissions, Layzell says he's particularly encouraged by the response and support from Canadian industry, which includes many of the nation's biggest polluters. Industrial support for BIOCAP is particularly strong in the resource sectors of Ontario and Alberta, with participation by firms such as Suncor, Shell Canada, TransAlta Utilities, Dupont Canada and Trans Canada Pipelines.

"Our co-sponsors want to be pro-active and develop resources they can shift to in the future. Many have large research operations for renewable energy," says Layzell. "We see Canada as having a national opportunity and a global responsibility to look at its bio-sphere. BIOCAP will carry out the research to provide options, alternatives and solutions. For instance, the waste carbon stream from forestry and agriculture would provide 25% of our energy needs that we currently get from fossil fuels."

Some of the technologies that would be supported by BIOCAP relate to atmospheric modelling, instrumentation, remote sensing and gas flux measurement. BIOCAP would manage the research projects by building teams and funding their activities by raising money from various sources.

Another major component of the BIOCAP initiative is policy research, which is headed by Dr William Leiss, outgoing president of the Royal Society of Canada and a research chair holder in risk communication and public policy at the Univ of Calgary. Layzell says 15-20% of BIOCAP's proposal focuses on economics and life cycle analysis. "We don't develop policy, but we do the academic analysis to inform policy. We focus on solutions and our primary product is to inform federal, provincial and industry decisions based on technological development," he says.


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