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Optimizing Federal Policy to Cut Carbon Emissions in Half By 2030

[originally published in RealClear Energy]

President Biden declared in his State of the Union address that his administration remains committed to cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal that rightly puts climate action at the forefront of our national priorities. But reaching this target will require an all-of-the-above approach – including support for policies that champion low carbon liquid fuels, which are vital for decarbonizing transportation across all modes, from the sea to the air and every road and rail in between. Without that flexibility, America risks coming up well short of President Biden’s goals.

The most important of the administration’s levers to pull regarding carbon reduction in fuels is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), an essential program for the adoption and implementation of low-carbon liquid transportation fuels. Overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the RFS sets mandates for blending biofuels – both first generation biofuels like ethanol, along with advanced biofuels that offer greater carbon reduction opportunities – into our transportation fuel supply.

Since its inception, the RFS has proven to be one of our nation’s most successful clean energy policies, slashing greenhouse gas emissions by over 1.2 billion metric tons since 2008, bolstering America’s heartland and shoring up our nation’s energy security in the process. The program is critical for our transition towards a low-carbon future, but the latest revisions set by the EPA in June 2023 fell short of fully harnessing the carbon reduction potential of these fuels. Projections indicate that biomass-based diesel – a type of advanced biofuel – production capacity will double by 2025, surpassing EPA’s estimates by 500 million gallons per year. This underestimation stifles innovation and slows progress towards the President’s 2030 climate goals.

In 2025, the EPA will have the opportunity to revisit the RFS. To maximize the impact of the program, it’s crucial that the RFS mandates align with actual production volumes. Additionally, EPA can and should expand its scope beyond our roads and skies to include marine fuels. Cargo shipping accounts for almost 3% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, generating approximately the same amount of carbon annually as the aviation sector. Harnessing advanced low-carbon fuels will be crucial in the efforts to decarbonize this vital mode of transportation.

These decisions will be pivotal in determining whether we stay on track to meet President Biden’s climate targets. It’s imperative that we seize this opportunity to course correct and strengthen the RFS to reflect the true potential of low carbon liquid fuels.

The Biden administration acknowledged its responsibility to support the low carbon fuel industry with the landmark 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which has provided necessary support for expanding sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and other advanced biofuels.

To deliver the full promise of the IRA however, the Treasury Department has an opportunity through upcoming guidance to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach – the current approach – is impractical. Flexibility for various low-carbon approaches is needed to achieve significant carbon emissions reductions on President Biden’s 2030 timeline.

What the President says at the State of the Union matters. In his 2006 address, President Bush helped launch the conversation around advanced biofuels by highlighting wood chips, stalks, and switchgrass as innovative feedstocks for new fuels. However, President Biden’s recent address left much unsaid about what would truly be required to reach his bold goals. As we navigate the intersection of climate action and transportation emissions policy, federal agencies must take bold action and use every tool in their toolbox to cut carbon in half by 2030. No one technological solution – including electrification – will get us there in time.

By leveraging policy to support low carbon liquid fuels, we can accelerate the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future. The time for action is now, and the success of our nation’s climate ambitions depends on it.

Michael McAdams is the president of the Advanced Biofuels Association.