By Chris Bliley, Climate Ethanol Alliance at COP 23
Electricity generation is getting greener every year. Ongoing innovation and competitive economics make solar, wind, and biomass increasingly attractive to leaders who seek to pull our planet off a crash course with climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, the data show that an abundance of low-carbon electricity is not enough. The vast majority of the world’s transportation is powered by liquid fuels, which can offer superior power, range, and ease of storage and distribution.
That is why no effort to hold down global carbon emissions can succeed without aggressive measures to reduce the carbon intensity of liquid fuels. Biofuels are the only proven solution.
Of course, electric vehicles (EVs) will also play a role, but even in locations where marketing campaigns saturate consumer awareness, internal combustion engines are forecast to remain dominant. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), sales of EVs will capture 6 percent of the U.S. market by 2040 – too late and too few to address the most urgent impacts of climate change.
Globally, the International Energy Agency reports that biofuels will supply a remarkable 93 percent of all renewable energy consumed in road travel by 2022, even with the addition of more EVs. Over that same period, global biofuel production is expected to increase at least 16 percent.
The urgent need for cleaner motor fuels is clear. The EIA reports that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell in every major category in 2016 — except transportation. That’s largely because demand for transportation is on the rise. Last year alone, America drivers set new records for both fuel burned and miles travel – over three trillion – in their cars and trucks. Developing nations face even greater pressures, as new opportunities for trade and commerce drive up demand for modern transportation options.
As the U.S. example shows, the result is a carbon ecosystem where emissions from transportation now outpace emissions from power generation, nullifying the vital progress being made on other fronts.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to petroleum-based fuels drawn from energy-intensive extraction methods like fracking or tar sands development. In fact, the U.S. is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of biofuels. Today, 97 percent of all motor fuel sold in the U.S. contains at least 10 percent ethanol. That progress has reduced U.S. transportation-related carbon emissions by 589.33 million metric tons over the last decade, equivalent to removing more than 124 million cars from the road, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
And innovation is accelerating as farmers and biofuel producers adopt increasingly efficient technologies to raise yields and reduce energy consumption. Land use has fallen, while production breaks records year after year. As a result, study after study has reached the same irrefutable conclusion. Biofuels like ethanol don’t just compare favorably to petroleum, they offer an immediate alternative that is ready to supplant a massive share of fossil fuels.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report this year demonstrating that corn-based ethanol is not only a low-carbon alternative to gasoline, it’s carbon intensity is falling fast as biofuel facilities adopt new technologies and farmers improve nitrogen management and make better use of cover crops. These conclusions reflect the broad consensus among academic and federal research at places like the University of Illinois at Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.
In fact, America’s farmers are now producing more food and energy than ever before, and they are doing it on less cropland than was under cultivation in the 1930s.
It works because biofuels provide both carbon and financial savings. Thanks to ethanol, the average U.S. household has saved about $142 in gasoline expenses, according to a new report in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. And other nations are learning from this example, adopting biofuels to combat both climate change and to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, and smog-forming pollutants.
A major reason for the success is that ethanol can seamlessly take the place of existing liquid fuels in our cars and trucks. It contains more octane than conventional gasoline, offering drivers better performance while saving motorists money. Engineers at Ford Motor Company have already demonstrated how high-octane biofuel blends can deliver a greater mileage value to motorists while cutting down particulate emissions by as much as a 45 percent.
Despite these overwhelming benefits, fossil fuel advocates continue to spread myths about biofuels and push to restore the fossil fuel monopoly over options at the fuel pump. So far, supporters have kept these efforts at bay, but if policymakers bow down to pressure from fossil fuel companies, it’s increasingly obvious that efforts to combat climate change will fall short.
(Climate Ethanol Alliance is supported by Ethanol Europe http://www.eerl.com/ , Marquis Energy http://marquisenergy.com/ and Growth Energy https://growthenergy.org/ . Chris Bliley is Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Growth Energy.)