The road to a low carbon future

Creative Commons: Stephanie Ashler

As nations gather in Bonn at COP23,  scratching their heads over why the U.S. would be the only nation on  earth to deny climate change science and to withdraw from the landmark  agreement that was reached two years ago in Paris (in case you missed  it, even Syria has now joined),  there are strong signs that a low carbon future is not only inevitable,  but will be the primary driver of economic growth in the 21st century.

Although  the Trump administration persists in denying the obvious, scientists,  economists, and even thirteen agencies of the U.S. federal government  concur in a newly released study  that the epic storms, flooding, wildfires, and droughts of 2017 are  going to become permanent fixtures of our future, thanks to misguided  policies and priorities of fossil-fueled politicians dating back to the  administration of George W. Bush. But the good news is that we can take  action now to prevent an even more catastrophic future for the  environment and our economy.

In the strongest rebuke yet of  Trump’s position, the Government Accountability Office (the GAO is the  auditing unit of the U.S. Congress) has strongly advocated that we  dramatically cut carbon pollution now. The GAO warns  that without prompt action, the productivity of the American workforce  will decline by as much as $150 billion by the end of this century and  that taxpayers should expect to spend far more in the future on extreme  weather disaster relief than the $350 billion the federal government has  spent in the past ten years.

So where are the solutions to the  climate crisis, that make solid economic sense, that nations at COP23  might emulate? One policy that is already reducing carbon pollution and  saving money for consumers, while creating sustainable new businesses  and jobs for American workers, is California’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard  (LCFS).

In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s economic  advisor David Crane came up with a simple idea for reducing greenhouse  gases from the transportation sector, one of the largest contributors of  heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. He suggested we could make fuels  cleaner in the same way we make cars cleaner and more efficient. 

The  so-called CAFÉ standard requires that automakers achieve a growing  improvement in miles-per-gallon (mpg) averaged over all the cars they  sell (so they can still sell gas-guzzling SUVs, but must also put  fuel-efficient cars in the market to achieve a high mpg average across  the fleet). That policy has resulted in innovation in conventional  engines, but also gave rise to fuel-efficient hybrids and advances in  electric mobility.

The LCFS works the same way - - fuel providers  in California must decrease the carbon intensity of fuels over time,  averaged over all types of fuels they sell. Fuel sellers can lower the  carbon by blending renewable biofuels into petroleum-based fuels; by  selling hydrogen for fuel cell electric cars or by providing charging  stations for battery-electric cars; and by reducing emissions from  refineries and other production/distribution facilities that produce the  fuels in the first place, among other innovations.

The result? Diesel fuel made from renewable sources (such as farm and food waste) reduced about 6,000 tons of greenhouse gases in 2011,  rising to over 600,000 tons in just one quarter of 2017. And automakers  are responding to the availability of cleaner fuels, with BMW, VW, and  Volvo announcing their entire fleets will be powered solely by clean fuels within the next decade.  That, in turn, has given cities such as Paris and entire countries such  as the United Kingdom and China the confidence to announce policies  that will limit the sale of vehicles to clean technologies in the near future.

Winston  Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right  thing - after they've tried everything else.” Hopefully the Trump  administration has exhausted the “everything else” category with its  head-in-the-sand approach to climate change and we can rely on states,  like California, and smart companies, like those providing low carbon  fuels, to do the right thing, before it’s too late for America and the  world.

Last updated July 2, 2018

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