On Dec. 16, the B.C. government released the CleanBC 2020 Climate Change Accountability Report, which revealed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation, the single biggest source in B.C., have risen by 23 per cent since 2007, and six per cent in 2018 alone.
Unfortunately, B.C.’s plan to reduce GHG pollution from transportation over the next decade is mainly based on discredited biofuels.
Biofuel manufacturers love to claim their product produces much less GHG pollution than gasoline or diesel from fossil fuels. But, in most cases, biofuels are not much better than conventional gasoline and diesel. One of Europe’s leading transportation research groups, Transport and Environment, points out that increasing demand for biofuels produced from food crops can lead to deforestation as the need for more agricultural land grows, contributing to GHG emissions.
The research group asserts “some biofuels lead to higher GHG emissions than the fossil fuel they replace, when taking into account the whole life-cycle emissions.”
The world’s climate scientists tell us that to avoid absolutely disastrous levels of global overheating, we need to reduce GHG pollution by more than seven per cent every year.
B.C.’s Climate Accountability Report includes the table below, showing the megatonnes (Mt) of GHG reduction expected from each transportation sector measure in 2030. Emissions reductions from electric vehicles, including incentives for electric buses and trucks, add up to only one megatonne. Vehicle energy efficiency standards add almost another megatonne.
The primary reduction cited in the report is 4.2 Mt of GHG from “renewable fuels,” which are presently almost exclusively biofuels. This is 70 per cent of the predicted six megatonnes of GHG emissions reduction from the transportation category.
What people are reading
Discounting the “renewable fuels” greatly increases the gap shown in the graph below. In reality, CleanBC is on track to get B.C. only 40 per cent of the way to its target.
A glaring gap is that increasing public transit and active transportation such as cycling, walking and rolling counts for no GHG reduction in CleanBC. Other jurisdictions are taking effective action to reduce private automobile use. For example, the same day as B.C. released its report, Scotland released a plan to cut car use by 20 per cent over 10 years.
When you make a car lane into a bus lane, a protected bike lane or more space for pedestrians, far more people can travel in the same lane, people drive less and traffic “evaporates,” or “disappears.” Vancouver’s recently approved Climate Emergency Action Plan aims to reallocate at least 11 per cent of road space to “walking, cycling and transit (to) greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuels through a reduction in vehicle ownership and kilometres travelled by vehicle.”
The biofuel fail
The supply of truly climate-friendly biofuels, such as biodiesel made from contaminated vegetable oil skimmed from sewer grease traps, is tiny compared to the amount of fossil fuels burned in transportation. Only vegetable oil so contaminated that it can’t be used in animal feed can properly be considered a waste material — in other cases, the GHGs from growing the crops, such as canola or soyabeans, must be counted in the GHG footprint of the biodiesel.
Biomethane made from waste organic material can fuel a few natural gas buses or city trucks sustainably. But the climate-friendly sources of organic material are extremely limited. Your kitchen scraps don’t produce much biogas. And cutting down trees to generate electricity or make liquid biofuels isn’t any better for the climate than fossil fuels.
In the past, there was real disagreement about liquid fuels from food crops like canola and sugar cane, and cutting down trees to burn as pellets or chips for electricity. But the recognition that biofuels can’t be a large-scale climate solution is growing. For example, Greenpeace calls for powering European transportation “with renewable energy, without relying on biofuels.”
Repeated experiments with “advanced” biofuels have flopped. The near-term future of renewable energy must be predominantly electricity from wind, solar, geothermal and other non-biofuel sources. (Green hydrogen and liquid electrofuels are just ways of storing renewable electricity).
Much of the present ethanol (which is blended into gasoline) and biodiesel supply comes from food crops, and is often as dangerous to climatic stability as conventional oil. A recent study by Rainforest Foundation Norway estimates that 90 per cent of the global increase in vegetable oil production in the past five years was burned as biofuel.
Effective climate action in transportation
Abandoning biofuels as a major climate action in the transportation sector, as must be done, raises the question of how to reduce GHG pollution. Switching to electric vehicles is important, but is not nearly enough on its own.
The answer is to look at what CleanBC excludes — and what more and more climate plans include: action to reduce the amount of driving and the number of cars and trucks.
Eric Doherty is a Victoria-based transportation planning consultant and president of Ecopath Planning.
Right on article. Aargh, I
Right on article. Aargh, I can't believe the BC NDP government is pushing biofuels--what's it going to be next, LNG? Oh wait. Blast it, they're better than the BC Liberals (who are basically quasi-Conservatives with a smattering of organized crime) but they keep messing up the climate file. Gonna be bugging my MLA.
This article is very helpful.
This article is very helpful. Electrifying transportation and building energy systems with renewables is one of the most important climate fighting initiatives in and between our cities. However, it leaves marine-based transport and farming operations stuck with fossil fuels.
One of the unspoken inferences coming from the transport planning silo, and ironically the critics of climate activism, is that an attempt to replace all energy from fossil fuels in land transportation and built structures at 1:1 is taken for granted. In fact, we are facing perhaps a 1/4 to 1/3 reduction in overall fossil fuel equivalent energy use this century. Using less overall energy should be a first step in the planning process, not a byproduct at the end.
The Laws of Physics dictate that it is impossible for biofuels to displace the vast amount of energy (and energy waste) present in liquid fuels that form the basis of our deep dependency on petroleum, even if it was truly net zero emission and had minimal environmental impacts. But that doesn't mean that farmers cannot grow and control their own limited co-operatively-owned, non-profit biofuel market for tractors and other diesel-powered farm machinery. The crops could be grown on marginal land, but only as part of a "grand conversion" to regenerative agricultural practices where rebuilding and maintaining soil health is paramount.
The great reduction in overall energy used in farming would come primarily from conservation tillage which requires far less machine-assisted work than the prevalent industrial farming, and where cover crops capture and sequester huge quantities of carbon and nutrients into the soils. In essence, photosynthesis -- natural solar power -- provides the vast majority of the necessary energy to do work, and displaces a significant amount of fuel and petroleum fertilizer in the process and well beyond, making regenerative agriculture net NEGATIVE carbon and one of the best climate-fighters ever conceived, even with a very limited closed biofuel market run by farmers. Double whammy.
With respect to the shipping industry and public ferries, burning fuel will always be necessary, even on short-haul ferry routes in part powered by large banks of batteries charged by shore power when docked. But the fossil fuel component left could be diluted with a proportionate blend of biodiesel, and wind-assisted on transoceanic voyages via vertical "wing" sails.
There is an anticipated world-demand reduction for fossil fuels on the horizon in leading economic prognostications about climate action, and that will result in a diminishing role for oil tankers traversing the planet's oceans. It will also kill off the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The question is, will the federal government owner even see the economic liability before the line is completed?
Not to mention that
Not to mention that agricultural land being used for fuel crops takes it away from food production. And likely drives up the price of the food crops competing for the space, as well.
But the part of the gov't document I didn't see mentioned, and is driving me nuts with curiosity, is this bit, in the section "Speeding up the switch to cleaner fuels" and the second bullet point refers to:
"650 million litres of renewable gasoline and deisel."
Now I've heard claims of "low carbon gasoline," and "low carbon intensity deisel," but I've never till now heard of "renewable gasoline and deisel."
Last I heard, they're still being burned, as opposed to some other, novel method of use.
The article’s core claim that
The article’s core claim that most biofuels’ GHG emission are no better than fossil fuels’ is contradicted by multiple lifecycle assessment (LCA) models in use by regulatory agencies around the world which overwhelmingly show significant GHG benefits from biofuels, including their land use change impacts.
Every alternative to today’s fossil fuels, be it electric vehicles, hydrogen, or biofuels, can be done poorly. Biofuels produced from tropical palm oils, for instance, have land use impacts which can give them higher GHG emissions than diesel, but there has been no palm oil used in Canada since 2014, and palm waste products are in less than 1% of all biofuels consumed here.
Canola and corn-based biofuels have been produced in Canada for well over a decade, but national cropland acres have decreased 8% since 2000, with an accompanying increase in crop production of 31%. In the 2010-2018 period, biofuel use in Canada grew 71%; these data alone make clear that it’s simplistic to draw a straight line between biofuel use, cropland expansion, and GHG emissions. The UN FAO reflects this; ‘biofuels is a complex topic and one should avoid oversimplification and sweeping statements as assessments of the sustainability of biofuels are context specific and depend on the local circumstances.’
The UN FAO Director General stated that, ‘It is important not to forget that biofuel emerged with strength as an alternative energy source because of the need to mitigate fossil fuel production and greenhouse gases – and that need has not changed. We need to move from the food versus fuel debate to a food and fuel debate.”
Canada’s existing and proposed low carbon fuel regulations are structured to deny access to unsustainable and high-GHG biofuels. The proposed federal Clean Fuel Standard, for example, requires verification of sustainable land use change and biodiversity practices – issues raised by palm cultivation – with feedstock verification to screen global biofuel supply. In addition, the federal CFS carbon intensity (CI) requirement, similar to that of BC’s, offers no incentive to use high carbon biofuels. Together, these tests ensure that Canadian's biofuel use will be effective in reducing GHG emissions and will ensure responsible land use.
Biofuels have a prominent role in national action plans because no practical path to 2030 or 2050 net zero targets can be achieved without them. The article acknowledges this reality; biking, more transit, and reducing the number of cars and trucks are necessary but fall well short of delivering CleanBC’s goals, much less Canada’s.
The growing adoption of low carbon fuel standards is an acknowledgment that the short-term emissions reduction gap cannot be filled with ‘predominantly electricity from wind, solar, geothermal and other non-biofuel sources’ as these are widely understood to be only partial, medium or long-term solutions for transportation sectors. And while the market for them is growing, their market share remains too small to sustain the valuable credit markets at the heart of these standard’s successful functioning. Similarly, neither will waiting for internal combustion engines to leave our roads, banned or not, address the need for large-scale reductions now, not in 2030 or 2040. Even beyond 2040, advanced biofuels are projected to play a key role in reducing or eliminating rapidly growing emissions in hard to decarbonize sectors, such as long-haul trucking, aviation, and shipping.
Looking forward, mislabelling all biofuels as ‘bad’ bucket misses the growing diversification of feedstocks, technologies, and bio/synthetic fuels, and the steady downward trend in biofuels carbon intensities. BC’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, for instance, has seen the CI of biofuels drop 62% from 2010 to 2018, with new clean technology innovations being adopted that have resulted in net-zero and even net-negative biofuels.
Beyond GHG reductions, biofuels have a role in healthier urban airsheds, eliminating toxic emissions from diesel and gasoline use. Biofuels also bring needed competition at the pump, protect fuel consumers, and add stability and critical new domestic markets for challenges faced by our forestry and agriculture sectors. Adding value to mill wastes and residues from forest sector facilities will help to bring economic relief to struggling rural communities, with new investment, clean energy jobs and growth.
Canada’s vast size, comparably small population, climate, substantial natural resources, and over-weighted reliance on export markets creates unique challenges and opportunities relative to reducing transport sector emissions. Against that backdrop, sustainable low-carbon biofuels have a significant role to play this decade, and an even bigger role out to 2050 if Canada is to meet its Net-Zero goals and successfully transition to a just, low-carbon economy.
"The proposed federal Clean
"The proposed federal Clean Fuel Standard, for example, requires verification" - Key point is that this standard is just a proposal. It is not in use. Canadian governments have had decades to put independent verification programs for biofuels in place, but they have chosen delay (like on most climate policies).
Climate delay is the new climate denial.