Are you slurping through a paper straw, searching for the next green product that will save the planet? Sorry to let you down: it’s policy — not individual action — that has the power to help us through the other side while also stimulating the bioeconomy.
There has been a focus in recent years on the small changes we can all make to help offset the impacts of climate change. Paper straws. Plant-based beef. Bikes. Yet these lifestyle adjustments are but a drop in the warming and acidifying ocean that is climate change. It’s new policies — not new products — that are needed.
It’s all well and good —noble, even — to be among the quarter of U.S. millennials now skipping meat, but that’s not going to douse the forest fires blazing in the Amazon. Brazil exports the vast majority of its beef to China and Hong Kong, where beef imports have ramped up 30% over the last year alone.
Even if a quarter of all Americans and Europeans went vegan today, the effect on overall meat consumption would pale into insignificance to the increasing demands of a burgeoning middle class in the regions that continue to witness the world’s most rapid population growth.
Similarly, we might swap plastic straws for a paper ones, feeling confident that we’re doing a great service to the planet, while being blindsided to the fact that 90 percent of plastic waste is washed into our seas from just ten rivers, all of them flowing from the same, increasingly heavily populated regions in Asia and Africa.
India generates over 57 million pounds of plastic per day. Much of it never gets collected. LightRocket via Getty Images
How about ditching the car and biking to work? Well, despite the vast majority of Americans accepting the global scientific consensus on climate change, only a third see people as the major cause. No wonder, then, that the number of folks cycling to work in the U.S. has actually fallen in recent years after an all time high in 2014. A major reason? Lower gas prices.
When it comes to action on climate change, what’s good for the planet must also benefit the economy and the livelihoods of people, which are more often than not at the forefront of the minds of voters and can make or break a government. When oil and gas contribute over a trillion dollars annually to the US coffers alone, we must find climate-friendly, bio-based alternatives that will guide us down a more sustainable path, while maintaining prosperity.
If we are serious about the climate crisis — and honest with ourselves — it is large scale policy changes on the national and global level, and not individual actions, that stand the best chance of negotiating us toward that cleaner future.
Here are three big policy ideas that are good for the climate and the bioeconomy.
1. Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act
The U.S. is second to China in total greenhouse gas emissions, but America’s 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide pumped out per capita is the highest of any nation. A major reason is transportation, closely followed by energy, which between them release nearly four billion metric tons of CO2.
If we are serious about driving down carbon emissions then one way to usher in change is to make it less economically viable for polluting industries to keep on polluting. Yet, ramping up taxes on coal, oil and gas is likely to have a knock-on effect for the consumer, who might fear that they face the brunt of price hikes.
Enter the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Tax, which aims to run until US greenhouse gas emissions have been cut to 90 percent below the 2016 level, with a reduction within 12 years of 40 percent. The initiative would see fees (rather than taxes) being placed on fossil fuels at the source of emissions such as coal mines and oil refineries. Starting at $15 per metric ton of carbon emitted and increasing $10 per year, these fees aim to drive down pollution as industries and consumers pursue cheaper and cleaner alternatives.
The bipartisan climate solution, which Congressman Ted Deutch told CNN will “change behaviour, dramatically reduce carbon emissions and will finally help to show that America is committed to being a leader on combating climate change”, would ensure that the government does not keep a penny, with fees being distributed back to consumers as a carbon dividend that would reach over $3000 for a family of four.
Backed by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, who are building support for bipartisan action on climate change, the bill backed by 62 sponsors in the House of Representatives — if passed by congress — would mark a significant step forward in the climate action we absolutely must take.
2. Renewable Fuels Standard
When it comes to petroleum, one thing is certain: once the oil wells run dry, renewable energy sources are all we’ve got.
The Renewable Fuels Standard was introduced by the U.S. congress in 2005 as a national policy to replace or reduce fossil fuel-based transport fuel with renewable fuels such as biodiesel, cellulosic biofuel, advanced biofuel and conventional biofuel, with a goal of 36 billion gallons by 2022. Compared to petroleum, cellulosic fuel provides a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over a full life cycle, which might even be vast underestimate according to more recent industry analyses.
Since the program was initiated, conventional biofuel and biomass diesel have met their statutory targets, though total renewable fuels fell this year to 71 percent of the statutory targets due to several factors including infrastructure and technology. In every year since 2010, exports have vastly exceeded imports in the U.S..
The biofuels industry in the U.S. is forming a formidable alternative to crude oil, projected to be worth over $250 billion within a decade. The sector already accounts for hundreds of thousands of jobs, at least 360,000 in 2014, and was responsible for over $2.4 billion worth of exports in 2017 — a year in which the production of 15.8 billion gallons of ethanol offset 532 million barrels of crude oil.
The OECD cited global policy decisions as favorable to biofuel production in their Agricultural Outlook for 2018-2027, over which period cellulosic biofuel production should double in the USA. In the EU, which is governed by other biofuel regulations, the proportion of transportation energy provided by biofuels is expected to reach 5.9%. In China, a nationwide push of E10 – a 10% ethanol-petroleum blend – if successful, would help the world’s most polluting nation to achieve its promises set in the Paris Agreement. Another driver in favour of biofuels is that prices will decrease in real terms, whereas oil is projected to soar to 40% of its current price by 2027.
The world has come to rely on thousands of petroleum products, including inks, lubricants, fertilizers and plastics, with the latter forming the front line in the global fight against habitat destruction.
Many of these products are, unfortunately, both polluting and essential — especially if we want to maintain plentiful crop yields and safe packaging for perishable foods.
Luckily, there are bio-based alternatives to all of these products, which the USDA’s BioPreferred Program has been boosting since 2002 through introducing mandatory purchasing requirements for federal agencies across 139 different categories, from fertilizers and facial care products through to engine oils, deodorants, paint removers and topical pain relievers.
This year, an analysis of the success of the program showed that the bioproducts sector contributed $459 billion to the US economy in 2016, an increase of more than 17 percent since 2014, with a concomitant increase in jobs of 10% over the same period to 4.65 million.
Success stories from the program include potato-based compostable cutlery, the adoption of bio-based penetrating lubricants by the Department of Defence, a soy-based roof for the General Services Administration (GSA) building in Chicago, bio-based paint stripper for the Coast Guard and soy ink for map makers.
Policies for global good
Small actions are worthwhile in the grand scheme of things when it comes to how consumers and voters drive policy change, which is where the greatest action will need to occur if we are to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The beauty of policy is that it doesn’t require us to convince people to modify their habits, but effects large-scale change across the whole population, reaping far greater cumulative rewards.
If the Energy Innovation and Carbon Deficit Act can pass the Senate, it would mark one of the most positive steps ever towards fulfilling each of our global climate agreements and more. With the biobased solutions accelerating in its wake, the springboard would be set for these industries take the lead and help usher us into a cleaner and more sustainable future.
In light of the Renewable Fuels Standard and BioPreferred, it is clear that policies stimulating bio-based industries are already providing not only jobs and money, but cheaper and viable alternatives to petrol based products that have the capacity to match the net economic benefits of those fossil fuel industries that have had such a stranglehold on global energy, transportation, agriculture and more: until now.