A Low Carbon Future is Inevitable

As nations gathered recently 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.

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. 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.