A Strong Low Carbon Fuel Standard Could Serve as a Model to the World

This month, California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) can set an historic precedent by establishing the world’s first Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). The proposed LCFS would give a clear, environmentally sound market signal that incentivizes investors, innovators, and fuel suppliers to develop the most viable second-generation clean transportation fuels.  LCFS aims to cut by 10% the carbon content of all transportation fuels sold in California by 2020, a key greenhouse gas reduction goal in the state’s pioneering Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32). As CEO of a national foodservice firm committed to lowering the carbon footprint of the food we serve by a quarter over three years, I support a rigorous LCFS for California. It would represent a quantum leap for a cleaner California.

Perhaps more importantly, California’s LCFS could set the world’s gold standard for clean transportation fuels: Eleven states are considering similar rules. President Obama has called for a national low-carbon fuel standard as part of his initiative to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80% by mid-century. Europe intends to establish an LCSF, and is also watching.

An “indirect land use change” (iLUC) provision comprises a key part of California’s proposed fuel standard because it would account for greenhouse gas emissions caused by some biofuels, such as corn ethanol, which boost the price of grain, inducing farmers to plow under carbon-sequestering habitat to plant crop fields. The iLUC carbon accounting system would thus acknowledge the higher greenhouse gas emissions caused by making ethanol from a food crop such as corn, versus from a non-food crop, such as switchgrass or algae.

Accounting for the impact of crop-based biofuels on habitat is critical, since deforestation represents 20% of annual global warming emissions. Such a sound policy would also spur competition amongst various technologies that have attracted venture capital, including cellulosic biofuels — produced through non-food crops — which do not cause indirect land use change.

Yet corn ethanol producers, the scientists they support, and the Midwest big corn lobby opposes factoring indirect land use into California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Their motive is narrow, shortsighted, and self-interested. Big corn hopes to weaken the LCFS and corner the alternative fuels market. But this would shunt aside cleaner fuels and increase worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Through our work to shrink the carbon footprint of our kitchens, services, and guests we have reviewed the best scientific literature and closely analyzed the food supply chain.  We have learned that in order to shrink our impact on the environment, we must depend mostly on local produce, reduce food waste, complete energy audits in our kitchens, and educate our chefs and guests about the important connection between food and carbon emissions.  Make no mistake: all food and food crops have a carbon footprint.  In setting a low carbon fuel standard for California, we cannot simply ignore reality—that the food crops used to make the dirtiest forms of corn ethanol have a real and measurable impact on the environment.  

Undeterred, the corn lobby argues that we need “more time” to study the link between corn ethanol and the destruction of natural habitat. But the federal government’s corn ethanol program already underscores the risks to our economy and atmosphere when environmental policy fails to account for iLUC. Many distinguished economists, including Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen, have already observed the federal corn ethanol program’s inflationary impact, a red flag for iLUC, as an ominous shortage of farmland has sent farmers scrambling to meet demand. Further, Jeffrey Sachs, a top advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, and the Director of the Earth Institute, has called the U.S. corn ethanol program, “a huge blow to the world’s food supply.”

If California’s ARB yields to the corn lobby and drops the proposed iLUC provision, the weakened LCFS risks perverting the very intentions of the law, by encouraging fuels that actually increase global warming.  Perhaps equally as treacherous would be if ARB lets the corn lobby strong-arm it into “waiting for more evidence.”  If we wait much longer before adopting standards that encourage low carbon fuel emissions, we may suffer the fate of the frog, incapable of sensing that the water he’s sitting in has slowly reached the boiling point.  

Setting a Low Carbon Fuel Standard that estimates the carbon footprint of each alternative fuel through an iLUC provision will not only benefit the people of California, it will show the world that government, fuel makers, investors — even food companies — can and must unite to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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