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We Must Think More Broadly to Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions

[originally published in RealClear Energy]

The Biden administration has set ambitious and pivotal objectives aimed at significantly curbing America’s carbon emissions from cars and trucks, which I wholeheartedly support. However, after years of doubling down on an electric vehicle strategy to achieve those goals, they seem to finally be acknowledging the reality of the challenges facing our transportation sector’s energy transition.

Fleets take decades to turn over, infrastructure buildout takes even longer, and electric solutions for the heavy-duty transportation sectors remain long-term plays. The administration’s common-sense move to moderate its electrical vehicle (EV) mandates is smart policy to buy time for electrical technologies to become cheaper and more widely available. Meanwhile, the “electrification gap” that remains for most modes of transportation, including heavy-duty applications like trucks, ships, and airplanes, can be bridged by other available renewable technologies that use existing infrastructure – like low-carbon advanced biofuels.

Across America, there is well-documented and reasonable skepticism about the federal government’s ambitious 50% EV sales target by 2030. EVs remain expensive for many Americans and charging infrastructure has been slow to penetrate rural communities despite significant technological gains in recent years. Even if sluggish EV sales rebounded over the next few months, it could be decades before they become America’s predominant passenger vehicle.

The energy transition is critical for the U.S. to reduce its carbon emissions. The U.S. transportation sector accounts for 4% of total global emissions – among the largest single source of emissions in the world, and double that of China’s transportation emissions. And even if EVs become the predominant mode of transportation, a significant portion of passenger vehicles will still rely on liquid fuels. Some estimates suggest that even by 2050, when EVs will make up the majority of new car sales, they will still only represent 50% of cars on U.S. highways. We must have solutions for this sector if we are to stave off the worst possible effects of climate change.

To be clear, electrification will play an important role in our energy transition. But it cannot – and should not – be our only tool to address the climate crisis. We must use all available technologies, especially those that can be immediately deployed using existing fueling infrastructure and serve as drop-in replacements for fossil fuels, to reduce carbon emissions from internal combustion-powered vehicles.

Today, we use advanced biofuels across our transportation sector to reduce transportation-based emissions – in 2023 they accounted for nearly 4% of all fuel sold and used in the U.S. Advanced biofuels are significantly different from first-generation biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, as they are federally mandated to achieve at least a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional fuels. They are made from a wide range of sustainable materials that would otherwise be considered waste – like agricultural residue, non-food crops, industrial waste streams, municipal solid waste (MSW), and more. Many of them far exceed the federal minimum targets, emitting more than 80% fewer emissions compared to fossil fuels. Perhaps even more importantly, they are “drop-in” fuels, meaning they’re compatible with gas-powered vehicles and require no change to America’s existing fueling infrastructure, presenting a valuable immediate-use opportunity to reduce our emissions without the cost of additional infrastructure.

Advanced biofuels can also reduce emissions from heavy industry – namely, long-haul trucking, marine shipping, airplanes, and freight rail – that are difficult or nearly impossible to electrify. Studies have shown that heavy-duty trucks alone accounted for 26% of transportation-based carbon emissions as recently as 2020 – and semi-trucks oftentimes stay on the road for 20 or more years. Given the importance of these modes of transport to our economy and the fact that they will remain on the road for the foreseeable future, the importance of expanding the volume of low-carbon fuel in our fuel mix has never been greater.

The Biden Administration recognized this need to increase sustainability for the heavy-duty transportation sector when they called on the advanced biofuels industry to supply enough sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to meet 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050. And yet their policy decisions since making this SAF Grand Challenge have have sent mixed messages, making it even harder for the advanced biofuels industry to reach its full potential.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its 2023-2025 Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs) that established biofuel volume requirements which, for the first time, showed a slight shift toward this technology-neutral approach. The agency recognized significant production gains made by America’s advanced biofuels producers, but its ruling still undervalued the sector’s full potential and disagreed with a study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicting a doubling of domestic renewable diesel production capacity by 2025.

But the administration’s decision to ease its EV mandates suggests that we may be on the cusp of a more practical-minded approach to emissions policymaking. This is a welcome development that reflects not only the immediate reality of the climate crisis but also the concerns voiced by Americans across the country about the practicality of such a forceful EV transition.

All-encompassing challenges require expansive mindsets to address them swiftly and effectively. It’s good to see America’s policymakers awaken to this principle, which has grounded the advanced biofuels sector’s efforts to produce widely available low carbon fuel technologies that can be deployed today in support of our shared climate goals. By supporting low-carbon solutions for the liquid fuel space alongside EVs, we can make more meaningful and lasting carbon reductions in America.

Michael McAdams is president of the Advanced Biofuel Association.