Getting biofuels on the green and narrow path

[Author's note: Back in January, the journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Bioprocessing was kind enough to publish an opinion piece from yours truly called "Getting biofuels on the green and narrow path: why we must get advanced biofuels started and started in the right way." However, since the journal requires a subscription, I thought I'd repackage the thoughts in a shorter, freely accessible blog. So here you go.]

Population growth and rising incomes are driving a massive increase in the demand for transportation energy, making transportation the fastest growing source of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG) that are changing the global climate[i]. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars in long-term capital investment is ‘locked’ into existing fleets—our cars, airplanes, school buses, construction and farm equipment—all of which will demand liquid fuels for years to come. A low-carbon liquid fuel is therefore critical for mitigating global warming. Our current policies do not, however, require or reward sustainable, low-carbon biomass. We need smart policies that support innovation, guide markets to choose sustainable biomass in sustainable quantities, and help the emerging advanced biofuels industry deliver real economic and environmental benefits. As a first step, NRDC proposes a Billion Gallon Challenge with rich incentives and rigorous sustainability requirements to launch the advanced biofuels industry on the right track.

Sustainable biofuels start with sustainable biomass

Biomass provides the fundamental Btus in biofuels—energy captured from the sun—and draws on limited natural resources—land, water, and soil nutrients—when it grows. No matter how efficient and clean biofuel refineries get, they cannot turn unsustainable biomass into a sustainable biofuel. We cannot afford to wait to develop and commercialize advanced biofuels, but if we bring these fuels to market without the right safeguards in place, the impacts from biomass production will result in more harm than good to our air, water, and landscapes. Does anyone really want the scarcity of these critical natural resources to be the factor that stops biofuels from growing out of control?

Today’s markets and regulations generally operate under the flawed assumption that all biomass is carbon neutral. Some biomass may be carbon neutral or even carbon negative—for example, wastes whose carbon would end up in the atmosphere anyway, or biomass grown on degraded land that restores soil carbon stocks. If demand for biomass increased significantly under today’s regulations, however, much of the biomass that would be used to meet that demand would increase atmospheric GHG concentrations (and a host of other environmental impacts). This biomass contains carbon that was not in the atmosphere before being turned into energy and would have the same warming impact as the fossil carbon released when we burn oil. And the policies that drive these emissions require no guarantee that any of the biomass will be re-grown—ever.  

Why we have to try to get advanced biofuels right

Transportation accounts for roughly 30% of U.S. GHG emissions. Fortunately, we have a range of technologies effective at cutting these emissions. We can make our cars and trucks more fuel-efficient, shift to less polluting modes of transportation, create walkable communities, and switch to lower carbon-intensity fuels. All of these solutions are important, but non-biofuels technologies alone will not get us where we need to go in time to avoid the consequences of unabated climate change.

The U.S. could theoretically meet its stated goal—reducing total economy-wide emissions by 80 percent—without biofuels. NRDC’s analysis shows that with all likely non-biofuels technologies commercialized and deployed and both existing and currently debated policies rapidly implemented, we can reduce transportation sector GHG emissions 45% below 2005 levels by 2050. If we also eliminate emissions from the entire rest of the economy, we would reduce overall emissions by 85%. This is possible but improbable. Thus a low-carbon liquid fuel is certainly not a tool we cannot give up lightly and, most likely, a tool we cannot do without.

Better biomass means holistic management

A refinery’s efficiency can be measured fairly easily, but it is much harder to determine if biomass is sustainable because its impacts are generally dispersed over broad areas, making more difficult to measure, price, or regulate. Cultivating sustainable biomass also presents challenges because biomass must be managed holistically as part of a system, balancing fertilizers, soil carbon, water use, and yield. Managing for any one attribute can easily lead to worsening impacts from the others—higher yields can cause more fertilizer runoff; building up soil carbon can lower yields and increase pressure to clear new lands. We have technologies and management practices to reduce the environmental impacts of our agricultural production, but we lack smart, performance-based policies that help farmers identify and develop broadly sustainable biomass production systems and make these better systems economically preferable.

A Billion Gallon Challenge to move us forward

We need lots of truly low-carbon biofuels made from sustainable biomass, but, to produce any significant amount, we first need to overhaul our regulations and incentives for agriculture and forestry. NRDC proposes a modest first step with rich rewards for going in the right direction: a Billion Gallon Challenge with large government incentives for the first billion gallons of biofuels that meet high-bar environmental standards for soil, water, and wildlife protection. Offering a large sum is critical for building first-of-a-kind, commercial-scale refineries and convincing farmers and foresters to provide sustainable biomass. These incentives would speed the commercialization of advanced biofuels and ensure that these technologies are established as models of how sustainable biofuels can be. Having a truly sustainable biofuel to point to would do more to build public support for biofuels, and the policies needed to make them work beyond the first billion gallons, than any promises from industry or exhortations from environmentalists.

Just a fraction of what taxpayers pay in subsidies for corn ethanol, a mature technology with GHG emissions higher than oil and other serious environmental impacts, would pay for the program. The main corn ethanol tax credit—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—cost, in 2010 alone, enough to put $2 per gallon toward building the necessary refineries and offer farmers and foresters more than $45 per dry ton for all the sustainable biomass needed for 5 years of operation. Ending any number of oil subsidies would also save taxpayers more than enough to cover our proposal’s modest price tag.   

[i] Arndt DS, Baringer MO and Johnson MR (eds), State of the Climate in 2009. Bull Amer Meteorol Soc 91(6): S1–S224 (2010).