The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Disputation: Bioeconomy and the Scoring of Carbon

April 13, 2022 |

Last week, players teed off in The Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, and Scottie Scheffler emerged as champion because in golf, lowest score wins. You’d think it would be the same in the world of carbon emissions — lowest carbon score wins. In golf, one often hears the phrase “the scorecard has no pictures”, yet in the bioeconomy, the scorecard is filled with pictures, colors, standards, shibboleths, magical thinking, volumes, credits, barriers, swamps, and a pain like eating ice cream too quickly.

In carbon, it “t’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it”; it is a world of nuance, menace and romance right out of the courts of the Byzantines. Controversies unsettled? Have you a month to hear about them? There are disputes about categories, definitions, offset practices, standards, food versus fuel, and a question of whether indirect land use change exists that gives the search for dark matter a run for it’s money,. There’s the color of one’s hydrogen, the order of counting in biomass energy, the zero emission tailpipe vs the Long Tailpipe and the Coal Car; there’s the required period of capture in carbon sequestration to chew over, if you’ve any time to spare. It’s a matter of count this, double count that, don’t count the other, and sometimes one wonders if all the power in the carbon world has been given over to the Marx Brothers.

In radio, the program that exemplifies carbon accounting is the Battling Bickersons, in the cartoon world it is the Lockhorns, on television it would have to be The Honeymooners.  You want to take all of the carbon counting, re-counting, sifting, shifting, adjusting and excluding, and go POW! right on the kisser.

Sigh. Bioeconomy professionals, are the Dogged Victims of Inexorable Disputation, if I can bend Bobby Jones’ memorable golfing phrase. Why? Because better to have lousy carbon targets than no carbon targets at all, say most people, and so we just put up with it just as Seattleites put up with the rain.

Let me illustrate. If you wish to make a biofuel such as ethanol and you’d like to make it from inedible corn, you can count that as a renewable fuel for compliance purposes, except in Europe. Over in the EU, if you make the same molecule, yet use carefully extracted forest slash and thinnings from state-owned forests in order to reduce wildfire risk, you can double count that. But in the US, you can’t count it at all. You can use an inedible vegetable oil but you can’t use palm oil, and except that you can’t use it in the US if you gasify it because no one has established what’s called a pathway. You can take that ethanol and put it into all US car makes at a 10 percent blend because there’s too much opposition to a 15 percent blend despite the fact that the same sorts of auto and fuel retailing companies sell 25 percent ethanol blends in Brazil. Have some excess ethanol? You can make it into carbon-qualifying jet fuel, but only if you make it at the same facility where you made the ethanol in the first place. Imagine telling people you can’t sell a hamburger bun except one baked on the same farm where the wheat is grown. 

According to some, I can count biomass energy as carbon reducing because the emission produced by the burning of a pellet will be re-absorbed by another tree which will yield future pellets, and so forth. According to others, biomass energy is combusting a sequestered carbon store (the tree) and only in many years will that carbon emission change from a massive emission to carbon-neutrality as forests slowly re-absorb the CO2.

If I make a qualifying biofuel and fly myself to the moon, that counts for carbon purposes. But if I make fuel on the Moon for the trip back home, no dice. If I convert a waste agricultural residue into ethylene and then burn the molecule as a fuel, that counts towards carbon targets, but if I turn that ethylene into Glad Wrap and wrap a Mummy init for all living time, it doesn’t count at all. So, you get the idea. Carbon rules began simply, became complex, then they were impossible. They way it’s going, they’ll be performed one day as Theater of the Absurd.

Should we have one carbon standard?

Of course we should, and direct emissions should be counted transparently, compared to a standard baseline, and lowest carbon wins. Does it matter whether we are making fuels or materials, except that they must be depreciated according to their lifespan? Carbon sequestration that lasts 10 years ought to be worth more than sequestration that lasts 5 years. A simple and transparent manner of estimating lifespan should be used. 

Does it matter where the carbon is used, or made? Air is shared, emissions mix, there is not a halo surrounding the Maldives, protecting them from rising seas because they do not emit as much carbon per capita as the United States. Also, does it matter whether it is made in one facility or five. Innovators ought to be able to claim their reductions using as complex supply chain as they wish, it all should be subject to audit, and the innovator should pay for the regulators and auditors, since they benefit financially from an emissions scheme. Credits ought to be traded freely to create as robust a market as possible and bring willing sellers of innovative low-carbon technologies as close as possible to willing payers among the world’s polluters. The simpler we make it, the broader the participation, the deeper the portfolio of carbon-reducing options, the better.

Let’s jettison indirect land use change until it is proven, let us replace volumetric standards with carbon intensity scores, and broad markets trading in the credits generated by ambitious carbon targets. Let us jettison hydrogen’s colors, which are becoming a Crayola box of confusion, for the simplicity of a carbon score. 

As we know from tennis or football, everyone can follow a score. As we know from golf, when you have a narrow and distant target, lowest score wins is a great way to take the measure of champions.

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