Green for the Common Man

February 25, 2019 |

By Douglas L. Faulkner, “The Cleantech Conservative” & Gerard J. Ostheimer, Ph.D.

Special to the Digest          

Out of the climate change cacophony, two notes that ring true for us are:  1) No climate fixes can be made without improving the lives of those in distressed rural areas; and, 2) Bio-based fuels and chemicals are needed to spur de-carbonization of the transportation sector.

The much publicized “Green New Deal” introduced recently as House Resolution 109 started off on the right foot by aspiring to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers”. Unfortunately, this clarity of purpose is promptly abandoned for a muddled laundry list of conflated social and environmental goals, including “high-quality health care” and “affordable, safe, and adequate housing”.

Although short on details, HR 109 calls specifically for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector” and for “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector”. Given this language, one might think that the Green New Deal is arguing for a bioeconomy moonshot. Instead, it seeks to power and fuel everything with renewable electricity:  it is silent about renewable liquid fuels, chemicals and materials for a genuinely circular economy.

The disconnect between the Green New Deal’s ambition and its failure to support a vibrant national bioeconomy is jarring in and of itself, let alone its blatant call for the federal government to seize control of the means of energy production and use.  Industry instead should take the lead with government support in fixing the problematic transportation sector with common sense and proven approaches.  This would both legitimately reduce carbon emissions right now and also offer real hope to hard-hit rural communities.

Sometimes, in the aspirational world of global energy and environmental policymaking it is necessary to step back and do a “reality check”.  Real progress has been made in reducing carbon emissions from the utility sector in the developed world, but not so much in the transportation sector.  Electric vehicles for personal use – though growing fast – are starting from a tiny base and will not make a significant dent in carbon emissions for decades, especially in the developed world.  Biofuels can be a bridge to a lower carbon world, if scaled up dramatically, but they are now blocked by regulatory and other barriers from making a real contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, there are demonstrably vast resources of renewable carbon: crop and forest residues and municipal solid wastes are available along with idle rural infrastructure and workers.  At the least, these bioenergy solutions belong side-by-side with priorities in electrification and energy efficiency.  Today, there are only five wood-to-fuel projects under way in North America.  That’s a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the potential to generate sustainable fuel distillates for heavy vehicles to jets to ocean shipping, where rapid electrification is not a viable option.  The seeds of widespread growth of private-public partnerships have already been planted – now they need nurturing.

What will it take to rapidly ramp up to the Golden Age of Bioenergy?  Many of the tools are already in place in the U.S., for example, through the Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000 and the Renewable Fuels Standard, but they need to be amply supported by reductions in red tape, focused appropriations and a renewed sense of purpose.  Progress does not need massive new taxes and federal control of the economy.

The private sector has to lead the way in the right eco-system of taxes, regulations and policies that provide incentives for growth, promote sustainable production, and show rural workers and communities that change is on the way.

Signs of a new direction for the bioeconomy are indeed sprouting.  For example, the U.S. federal Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee (Doug co-chairs) has recommended changes in regulations to unleash advanced biofuels in America and has begun an assessment throughout 2019 for protecting and sustainably using forests, dubbed “The Year of the Tree.” The International Energy Agency continues to advocate for the positive role that bioenergy can and will play as a global source of renewable energy.

Restoring dashed hopes and dreams in rural communities doesn’t usually rank high among the considerations of the Davos elite as they contemplate energy and environmental issues – but they should.  Any new directions in green policy, including bioenergy, need to take “political sustainability” into strong account.  Around the globe, examples abound of voter rebellion against government actions that hurt their standards of living and undercut their opportunities, especially in hard-pressed rural areas.  For example, a new tax on liquid transport fuels in France was the spark that ignited the long-simmering discontent of those in rural areas to take to the streets in their “yellow vests”.  In contrast, we strongly believe that government policies that boost the use of forest and crop residues for making liquid fuels and everyday products can add cash to workers’ pocketbooks, reduce carbon emissions – and prove politically durable.

So, cue Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and chant with us:  build some plants, give some hope, save some trees and clean up the environment.  It’s really time for a real change!

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Category: Thought Leadership

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