Saturday, March 21, 2015

Scrutinizing the logic on biofuels

This post picks up a thread based on comments that Prof. Robert Brown and Prof. Bruce Dale made on my "Don't pitch low-carbon fuel ..." post. Both Robert and Bruce take strong exception to my analysis. They invoke the commonly made assumption that substituting a biofuel for a fossil fuel reduces net CO2 emissions because biofuel use recycles carbon while fossil fuel use does not.

This widely used view of the biofuel lifecycle does not tell
the whole story.
  [Image credit:] 
Their argument is based on the following logic:

(1) Fossil fuels send old carbon on a one-way trip to the atmosphere, thereby increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

(2) Biofuels use carbon recently taken from the air that is then released back to the air, resulting in no net change in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

(3) Therefore, substituting a biofuel for a fossil fuel reduces the rate of CO2 buildup in the atmosphere.

Although this basic analysis neglects processing emissions, we can leave those aside for the purpose of this discussion. They are not what's at the heart of the disagreement, and in any case processing emissions do get tracked by lifecycle models, e.g., as used in the RFS and LCFS. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Don't tout low-carbon fuel; track real carbon instead

My recent studies expose the fallacies behind California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) and similar provisions of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Such policies claim to reduce the carbon footprint of motor fuels, but are more likely to actually increase CO2 emissions.

I'm not alone in expressing such concerns. A paper whose authors include the original developer of the lifecycle analysis method that underpins the LCFS points out how such approaches can mislead policy makers. A recent World Resources Institute (WRI) report faults policies that promote biofuels and create an adverse "food vs. fuel" trade-off.

Among the objections to my criticism is that it is merely academic and fails to offer a constructive solution for the transportation fuel-related CO2 emissions that remain after improving vehicle efficiency and limiting travel demand.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signing AB 32 on Sept. 27, 2006
(Source: Getty Images via 
In California, however, the answer is right under policy makers' noses. The Global Warming Solutions Act [Assembly Bill (AB) 32] caps carbon emissions statewide, and starting this year also places transportation fuels under the cap. AB 32 is the best climate protection program established anywhere to date, and with a technical correction plus expanded provisions for carbon offsets, it would be an ideal policy for addressing fuel-related CO2 emissions.