Yesterday, my colleague, Nathanael Greene, blogged on the implications of two articles that appeared in Science Magazine that highlight the risks of expanding biofuels without the proper standards and safeguards. As Nathanael correctly points out the issue of carbon emissions from land use conversion is real and must be addressed. We urgently need to put into place the necessary greenhouse gas standards and environmental safeguards to steer the market to "green biofuels", such as those made from such as those made from certain waste materials. California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, because it is based on the full fuel cycle of carbon emissions, is a critical piece of establishing these safeguards. The California Air Resources Board clearly must incorporate the greenhouse gas impacts of indirect land use conversion into its Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
It's important to understand that not all biofuels are created equal. Just like electricity can be produced from dirty sources like coal or clean sources like photovoltaics, biofuels too can be made in dramatically different fashions. Biofuels that are grown on crop-land in an unsustainable manner have much greater environmental challenges than, say, those made from other sources, such as some agricultural and municipal wastes. These sources, with the proper safeguards, can be much better for the environment because they do not compete with agricultural land, thereby avoiding the the carbon debt associated with land conversion. The problem is that without the right rules established by the government, the market will choose what is currently easier and cheaper to produce (and unfortunately less sustainable).
There are two critical activities occurring now that can steer biofuels in the right direction. Nathanael blogged about the critical importance of the federal government, in this case specifically the US EPA, to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard with the proper greenhouse gas standards and environmental safeguards.
At least equally as important is for California to move expeditiously and intelligently forward on its proposed new regulation, the world’s first Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Biofuels will happen with or without California's regulations, but California can be a key factor in determining what kind of biofuels we get. Just like it has catalyzed the development of a whole host of cleaner technologies, such as 3-way catalytic converters and low sulfur gasoline, California has the opportunity to catalyze the development of "green" biofuels. To do so, it is clear California must include the impacts of direct and indirect land use conversion in its lifecycle accounting, as well as put into place any other environmental safeguards that are needed.
For the last four decades, California has played a leadership role when it comes to setting pollution standards that are scientifically sound, as well as environmentally sensible and necessary, even in the face of stiff industry opposition. With adoption of a strong Low Carbon Fuel Standard, California can once again reprise its role as an environmental leader.