Living on a Land-Constrained Planet: The Imperative of Moving Beyond High-Carbon Bioenergy

The moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is an option for supporting climate stability.

California is at a crossroads when it comes to making decisions about the future of policy and mechanisms that have been developed in the pursuit of decarbonization. As the California Air Resources Board endeavors to amend the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), one of the most important yet lesser-understood climate programs in the state, many civil society and community-based organizations are raising alarms about the risks and dangers embedded in the increasingly aggressive pivot to promote bioenergy options like liquid biofuels.

aerial view of a flat field with several rectangular plots planted with various green biofuel crops

A bioenergy research plot at Michigan State University’s W. K. Kellogg Biological Station. Photo courtesy of Kurt Stepnitz, Michigan State University Office of Biobased Technologies.

Sufficient evidence has accrued to conclude that the moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is inherently an option for supporting climate stability. The opposite is true. Though there do exist some industrial efficiencies, processing technologies and feedstock streams that offer bioenergy products that might have a climate ‘benefit’, the scale of these options is extremely limited. Bioenergy must be scrutinized with skepticism, as much bioenergy does not support climate stability and actually presents severe threats to food security, forest protection, public health, air quality, ecosystem protection, and social justice.

Unfortunately, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is in many instances inaccurately categorizing high carbon bioenergy as low carbon, due largely to embedded archaic assumptions, flawed carbon accounting, out of date climate science, and a failure to adequately assess impacts on public health, biodiversity, water resources and ecological integrity from both the production of feedstocks and the refining processes necessary for these energy products.

Some of the most common forms of bioenergy incentivized by the LCFS are not only associated with significant increases in food prices, but also with deforestation, industrial pollution, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, degraded water resources, biodiversity loss and increased overall greenhouse gas emissions. These trends are at risk of continuing unabated due to well-intentioned but poorly conceived clean energy targets, public subsidies, and markets-based mechanisms.

Because of the public relations spin, economic opportunism and political convenience of replacing the production and distribution infrastructure of petroleum-based liquid fuels with bioenergy options, there is a tendency to overlook the growing evidence of the impacts of high carbon biofuel products and continue to treat them as sources of renewable energy. A course correction is needed. Pivoting strongly to convert emissions intensive petroleum infrastructure to function as emissions intensive bioenergy infrastructure, as we see happening in the refinery corridor of the North San Francisco Bay Area, will prove to be a climate dead end.

Related Reading
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California Refinery’s Switch to Biofuels Not as Green As it Sounds

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