Biogenic emissions – What & Why it is important?

Last updated on October 29th, 2023 at 04:20 am

Biogenic emission refers to the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere that originate from natural biological processes. These emissions are a result of activities performed by living organisms, both plant and animal, as well as microorganisms and are part of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle and have been occurring for millions of years.

The primary greenhouse gases associated with biogenic emissions include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).

These gases are generated through below natural biological processes:

  1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Plants, as part of photosynthesis, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into organic matter while releasing oxygen. When plants or plant materials, such as wood and other biomass, decay or are burned, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere, completing the carbon cycle.
  2. Methane (CH4): Methane is produced in various natural processes, including the digestive systems of ruminant animals (e.g., cows, sheep), wetlands, termites, and anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in environments without oxygen (e.g., swamps and landfills).
  3. Nitrous Oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide is emitted from natural processes such as microbial activities in soils, oceanic emissions, and certain agricultural practices.

It’s important to distinguish biogenic emissions from anthropogenic emissions, which are emissions resulting from human activities. Anthropogenic emissions mainly stem from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial processes, deforestation, and various agricultural practices.

In climate change discussions and GHG emissions accounting, biogenic emissions are typically treated differently from anthropogenic emissions due to their natural origin and cyclical nature. Biogenic emissions are often considered part of a balanced and sustainable carbon cycle, where the release of GHGs is offset by natural processes that absorb or sequester an equivalent amount of carbon.

However, biogenic emissions can still influence the atmospheric concentration of GHGs and impact local or regional air quality, especially in areas with high agricultural activity or dense animal populations. Therefore, understanding and accurately accounting for both biogenic and anthropogenic emissions are essential when assessing the overall environmental impact and formulating strategies to address climate change.

The importance of biogenic emissions lies in their role in the Earth’s natural carbon cycle and their influence on the atmosphere, climate, and ecosystem dynamics. Biogenic emissions are an integral part of the planet’s ecological balance and have both local and global significance.

These are some key reasons why biogenic emissions are important:

  1. Carbon Cycle Balance: Biogenic emissions play a critical role in the carbon cycle, which is the continuous exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, biosphere (living organisms), geosphere (earth’s crust), and hydrosphere (oceans and other bodies of water). Through processes like photosynthesis and respiration, plants and other living organisms absorb and release carbon dioxide, contributing to the overall carbon balance in the atmosphere.
  2. Climate Influence: Biogenic emissions, particularly of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, influence the Earth’s climate. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. Methane, which is even more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 in the short term, also affects climate and plays a role in the radiative forcing of the Earth’s atmosphere.
  3. Air Quality: Biogenic emissions can impact local air quality, especially in areas with high vegetation density or wetlands. For instance, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by plants can react with other pollutants to form ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant that can negatively affect human health and vegetation.
  4. Feedback Mechanisms: Biogenic emissions can interact with climate change in complex ways. For example, warming temperatures can affect vegetation growth and the rate of photosynthesis, leading to potential changes in biogenic emissions. Additionally, thawing permafrost in the Arctic may release large amounts of previously stored organic matter, including methane, which could further amplify climate change.
  5. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Biogenic emissions support biodiversity and ecosystem services by providing the necessary carbon sources for primary producers (plants) and their ecosystems. They contribute to soil organic matter, supporting soil fertility and water retention, and help sustain a wide variety of plant and animal life.
  6. Bioenergy and Renewable Resources: Some biogenic emissions, such as those from sustainable biomass energy sources like biofuels and biogas, can be harnessed as renewable resources to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate anthropogenic emissions.

It is crucial to understand and monitor biogenic emissions to accurately assess their contribution to the overall climate system and to distinguish them from anthropogenic emissions. Proper accounting and understanding of both biogenic and anthropogenic emissions are essential for developing effective climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and ensuring a sustainable and resilient future for the planet.

Calculating biogenic emissions involves estimating the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the atmosphere through natural biological processes. The most common biogenic emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Keep in mind that the actual calculation can be complex and may require specific data for different sources of biogenic emissions.

Listing few examples of how to calculate biogenic emissions for methane from a particular source, such as a landfill:

  1. Determine the Methane Generation Rate: For a landfill, you would need to estimate the rate at which methane is generated from the decomposition of organic waste. Landfills are anaerobic environments, meaning they lack oxygen, allowing methane-producing bacteria to break down organic matter and produce methane. The methane generation rate can depend on factors such as the waste composition, waste age, temperature, and moisture content.
  2. Calculate Methane Emission Factor: The emission factor is the amount of methane produced per unit of waste. It is typically expressed as a percentage or fraction of the waste’s organic content. You can obtain emission factors from environmental databases or scientific literature specific to the type of waste and its decomposition conditions.
  3. Estimate the Amount of Waste Decomposed: Based on the landfill’s waste intake and decomposition rates, estimate the amount of waste that undergoes anaerobic decomposition, thus releasing methane.
  4. Calculate Methane Emissions: Multiply the methane generation rate (step 1) by the emission factor (step 2) and the amount of waste decomposed (step 3) to get the total methane emissions from the landfill.
  5. Convert Methane to CO2-equivalent: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so to compare its impact to CO2 emissions, it is common to convert it to its CO2-equivalent using a global warming potential (GWP) factor. The GWP represents how much more potent methane is compared to CO2 over a specific time period. For example, the commonly used GWP for a 100-year time horizon is approximately 25, meaning methane has 25 times the global warming impact of CO2 over a century.
  6. Calculate Biogenic CO2 Equivalent Emissions: Multiply the total methane emissions (step 4) by the appropriate GWP for methane (e.g., 25 for a 100-year time horizon) to obtain the biogenic CO2 equivalent emissions from the landfill.

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