We use petroleum-based fuels to power our cars, trucks and airplanes, but the emissions pollute the air and jeopardize the stability of the planet’s climate – a challenge that international negotiators are now tackling in Paris. Low-carbon biofuels offer a potential alternative to meet our transportation needs without increasing emissions.
At the federal level, new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued Monday will boost biofuel production nationwide, while in California, our environmental policies also promote low-carbon biofuels. But the state needs additional biofuel policies to reduce transportation emissions further and benefit local economies in the process.
Biofuel comes from a variety of agricultural crops (such as corn, canola and sugar cane), algae, food waste and forest residue, among other sources. Depending on the origin, type and other factors, biofuel increasingly can be produced locally and burn with fewer net life cycle carbon emissions than petroleum fuel, although some “high-carbon” biofuels can cause as much pollution as they offset.
California has the potential to produce a significant amount of low-carbon biofuel to meet much of our transportation needs over the coming decade and beyond, particularly until the costs of battery electric transportation come down to provide a mass-market option for passenger vehicles.
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The state already has a small but growing amount of biofuel use. Out of 14.5 billion gallons of gasoline burned here each year, Californians consume approximately 10 percent (1.5 billion gallons) as ethanol fuel; out of approximately 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel consumed annually, about 2.3 percent (70 million gallons) consists of biodiesel.
But the state has not yet taken full advantage of the diverse opportunities for low-carbon biofuel production from in-state biomass. While policies such as the state’s recently revised low-carbon fuel standard have put California on a leadership path in incorporating low-carbon biofuels into our transportation fuel mix, more federal and state action could ensure that California maximizes the environmental and economic potential of in-state innovation and production.
Federal and state leaders could:
▪ Provide greater support for in-state biofuel production, taking into account the full range of local biofuel carbon benefits and co-products, like biochar compost that can sequester carbon, and thin-film plastic to bed strawberries and tomatoes.
▪ Offer financial incentives for automakers and gas stations to allow and sell greater amounts of low-carbon biofuels and higher blend rates.
▪ Improve access to and financial support for in-state feedstock production, particularly on idled farmland and forestland to reduce wildfire risks.
Ultimately, California should set a goal of providing at least half of its low-carbon biofuel from in-state sources. Locally produced, low-carbon biofuel is an important bridge fuel to meet the state’s long-term climate goals, and it will benefit California’s environment and economy in the process.
Ethan N. Elkind is the associate director of the Climate Change and Business Program at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law and author of the report “Planting Fuels: How California Can Boost Local, Low-Carbon Biofuel Production.”