This December, approximately 30,000 of the world’s top climate experts and state leaders gathered in Poland for COP24, also known as the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their mission: to avert the most life-threatening and catastrophic effects of climate change.
To guide that work, scientists compiled a landmark report outlining immediate, sector-by-sector emissions targets that are essential to limiting global temperature changes to 1.5°C. The report, approved by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has received limited media attention.
With the election behind us and new leadership in the House, it’s time to take another look at the IPCC warnings and examine bipartisan solutions that Congress can work toward — immediately.
High on the list are biofuels, which offer low-cost energy without the need for new fueling infrastructure. The International Energy Agency reports that “modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant within renewable energy.” And the IPCC projects that low-carbon biofuels are essential to any workable path toward a 1.5°C scenario. According to the IPCC, global biofuel consumption must increase from about 2 percent of the global transportation fuel mix in 2020 to more than 14 percent in 2050. Essentially, the whole world must convert to an E15 (15 percent ethanol) fuel blend.
In the United States, a handful of petroleum-backed front groups have sought to tarnish the earth-friendly reputation of biofuels like ethanol. They make outlandish claims about farmers digging up new land to grow corn and other feedstocks, but the science is clear. Yields are growing thanks to innovation, while agricultural land use for corn in the U.S. has decreased from more than 110 million acres in the early 1930s to fewer than 90 million acres today. Importantly, that downward trend continued after 2007, when Republicans and Democrats united to expand the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which guarantees that oil companies can’t lock biofuels out of the marketplace.
Ethanol now serves as a low-cost octane booster to displace toxic, cancer-causing chemicals in gasoline linked to asthma, smog, and groundwater contamination. And, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn ethanol reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 43 percent compared to gasoline. Research by Argonne National Laboratory shows that advanced biofuels can reduce emissions by 100 percent or more.
To harness those benefits, California’s low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) provides market-based incentives that promote continuous innovation in biofuels, whether they are made from Nebraska corn or California forest waste.
Aemetis is currently building a $175 million waste-to-cellulosic ethanol plant in central California that will convert wood waste from almond and walnut orchards into clean-burning biofuel. Using technologies developed at a cost of more than $550 million over more than a decade, the Aemetis plant is designed to remove more carbon from the atmosphere over the complete lifecycle of the biofuel than is emitted during engine combustion. Aemetis “below zero” carbon emissions biofuel will literally help reverse climate change with every mile driven.
The LCFS has encouraged innovation in California. Now it’s time to push for the same outcomes at the federal level.
Unfortunately, the nation’s largest and wealthiest petroleum refiners have demanded — and been granted — secretive “Hardship Waivers” that exempt oil companies from federal biofuel standards. In early 2018, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt granted handouts to 42 refineries, cancelling 2.25 billion gallons of ethanol demand.
It remains to be seen if the new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, will reverse that damage by upholding the RFS, as President Trump promised farm-state voters and clean air proponents. Democrats in Congress have an opportunity to work on a bipartisan basis with rural champions from both parties — and even the White House — to do something great for the climate by ensuring the EPA fulfills congressional intent and enforces the law.
It would be a smart and effective way to support clean energy at a time when our partners around the world are looking for leadership from the United States.