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LCFS: A crucial tool to fight climate change

California motorists in a traffic jam. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Imagine going to war without a vital weapon like military aircraft.

That’s the equivalent of trying to fight dangerous climate change without California’s groundbreaking Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), a major component of the state’s climate strategy. Just as the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires electric utilities to phase in a specific amount of clean energy in our electricity mix, the LCFS mandates that the oil industry phase in cleaner fuels to tackle the state’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions: the fuel that runs our cars, trucks, and buses.

Since the LCFS began in 2011, the state’s use of cleaner transportation fuels has grown by over 20% on average.

The oil industry and its allies are now arguing the state should abandon targeted, sector-based pollution control requirements on their industry and instead rely only on a single program, cap-and-trade, which puts a declining limit on greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. But eliminating any of the key programs that are foundations for achieving the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) – whether it’s the LCFS, tailpipe pollution standards for cars and trucks under the Clean Cars Program, Renewable Portfolio Standard, or energy efficiency programs – is like entering a fight with one hand (and both feet) tied. It will decrease investments in clean energy, slow related job growth, and hobble the state’s efforts to achieve its long-term climate goals.

Just ask Apple and Google if their game plan is to only focus on the iPhone and search engine of today. Absolutely not. Like other tech companies, they’re investing heavily in innovations to support future products in five, 10 and even 15 years out. Performance-based programs like the LCFS should be viewed in a similar context because they push industry to innovate and scale-up the low-carbon technologies that future generations need to have a fighting chance against dangerous climate change.

And that push is working. Since the LCFS began in 2011, the state’s use of cleaner transportation fuels — such as electricity, biogas, and advanced renewable fuels — has grown by over 20% on average. The program has helped reduce our oil dependence, slashing the use of gasoline and diesel by over 8 billion gallons while avoiding 15 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equivalent to the annual emissions belching from four coal-powered plants.

But a recent opinion piece in this paper claimed the LCFS and these other key programs are not reducing net emissions in California and that cap-and-trade can do it all. We disagree. Targeted programs like the LCFS and RPS are California’s major offensive weapon in the long-term battle to deploy clean energy technologies by helping to overcome market barriers, spurring innovation, and enabling widespread deployment. Cap-and-trade, in contrast, provides a critical backstop against even greater amounts of carbon pollution as the state’s economy and population continue to grow. While arguing over which is more important — a strong offense or a strong defense – can make for great academic debate, winning this war means doing well on all fronts.

That’s the multidimensional approach California has embraced. The state has long recognized there is no such thing as a silver bullet to tackle climate change, only well-aimed silver buck shots. Thanks to our portfolio of climate programs, California is on track to exceed AB 32’s target to reduce carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020 and well-positioned to meet Governor Jerry Brown’s target of a 40 percent reduction by 2030. And the benefits extend well beyond cuts to carbon pollution. They include cleaner air, more diverse energy sources, increased investor certainty, scale-up of innovations, and reductions in technology costs (think wind, solar, electric vehicles, and biogas). That’s why California’s climate portfolio has become a model internationally: our policies address a global problem through delivering local benefits.

The auto and electric industries are already innovating and investing to cut their carbon pollution, spurred on by these types of performance-based policies. It’s time for the oil industry to do its part. Don’t be fooled. Disarming ourselves by tearing down a critical element of our state’s climate program – at the behest of the oil industry seeking to preserve its bottom line – takes us in the wrong direction.

Ed’s Note: Simon Mui is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its California Vehicle and Fuels Program. His work focuses on advocacy and research on clean vehicles and fuels. 

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