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Green New Deal Dialogue Emphasizes Green Growth, Inequalities; Fails to Appreciate Potential Role of Biofuels in Achieving Goals

Federal Legislation, Feedstocks, Field/Orchard/Plantation Crops/Residues, Not Agriculture, Opinions, Original Writing, Opinions Advanced Biofuels USA, Other Conferences/Events, Policy, Presentations
April 1, 2019

by Margaret Johnston* (Advanced Biofuels USA)  On March 14th in Washington DC, I attended a Green New Deal Dialogue. Speakers came from all over the country to discuss possibilities of green growth, implementation strategies, and current (financial, racism, and energy) inequalities as well as others that may arise. The event itself had four panels (of which I attended the first three), where each speaker gave their talks, then sat down for a (very brief) question and answer session.

Compared to the New Deal

Several excellent points were made over the course of the discussion. The first was that the original New Deal didn’t succeed in fixing the economy by itself (That required WWII,); but it succeeded in many smaller victories. Although the New Deal and WWII affected technology, it was really the Cold War that sparked technological development. As such, what we may need to truly get to net-zero carbon may be a green cold war, or a green new frontier.

Crimes against Humanity

Another key point is that the fossil fuel industries are committing crimes against humanity, they are profiting on destroying the world and denying that they are doing so. They have made climate change a taboo subject, and as a result news and weather reporters rarely mention it. In order to create true change people need to experience climate change as an immediate threat, and people need to talk about it.

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

Additionally, even if everyone agreed that the Green New Deal should be passed, it would still be incredibly difficult to do so. It has to be translated into achievable goals and policies, and there will still be debates and arguments about what the priorities should be and how it should be funded. But, the longer the Green New Deal takes to pass, the less time we will have to implement it before climate change becomes irreversible. In order for it to pass, we will have to take the politics out of policy.

Lack of Discussion of Transportation or Biofuels

I was rather disappointed by the lack of discussion on improvements to the transportation sector and biofuels. Only two speakers mentioned electric cars and the challenges they present, while only one speaker (Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara) spoke about the fossil fuels industry and how to avoid the power of their lobbyists.

John Zysman, University of California, Berkeley, proposed that all current gas stations could be partially converted into charging stations for electric vehicles and encouraged the promotion of electric public transit, but cautioned that new innovations in battery design would be needed.

David Hart, George Mason University, said that we can’t change technology systems without social change, and that the whole power system would have to be altered, since charging all vehicles at once would overpower the current system. However, neither mentioned the cars that are currently on the road (and will continue to be used for the next 20 years or so), the number of people who would be unable to afford the more expensive electric vehicles under current pricing, or the time it would take to stop and charge a vehicle while on a long trip.

Fuel Poverty and Energy Insecurity

The second panel came closest to touching on these transportation issues by focusing on the inequalities present in our energy systems and how to avoid them moving forward. The speakers discussed fuel poverty and energy insecurity (the inability to adequately meet basic household energy needs), along with the question of “is energy a human right?”

People need the ability to heat their home, cook and communicate; yet one in three American households are energy insecure. They are at risk of having their utilities shut off because they can’t pay the bills, or they have to make other potentially debilitating sacrifices in order to keep their utilities.

This is happening alongside other issues, like environmental racism, food insecurity, and labor issues, and climate change will only exacerbate these problems. If social services aren’t included in the Green New Deal, they will disappear as a priority when it is passed.

Biofuels Conversations

The panels did not provide enough time for questions after each of the talks, so I was only able to ask four presenters about their thoughts on biofuels.

Two speakers, Diana Hernández, Columbia University, and David Hart (one of the speakers who discussed electric vehicles), did not give any answer at all, saying that they did not know enough about biofuels.

Leah Stokes (who talked about the power of fossil fuel lobbyists) said that she supported biofuels, and while she did not know much about them, she had friends who worked in biofuels, Hanna Breetz of Arizona State University.

Nina Kelsey, George Washington University, was the only speaker to give a detailed answer. She agreed that we will need biofuels for certain commodities (some examples are plastics and jet fuel), but thought that biofuels wouldn’t be the best option for transportation.

With the current infrastructure for gas stations and oil refineries already in place, it would be an easy transition (far easier than an all-electric), but current car engines can’t run on 100% ethanol, so modifications would need to be made to vehicles before a complete switch could be made.

Kelsey worried that it has the potential to replace the current problems with new problems. Like “clean coal,” it could end up being more of a “political solution” rather than being the most advantageous long-term solution.

I disagree, in part. It’s true that that there is a risk of mismanaging biofuel production and use for transportation, but I think that is true of implementing any new system. Biofuels are absolutely necessary when transitioning to an electric system, and they will still be needed afterwards.

As Kelsey said, bio-oils will be needed for producing bioplastics and other products that are currently made with petroleum, and there are some methods of transportation that will not be able to be 100% electric with current technology. Planes for example, will still require jet fuel, and long-distance driving (with current battery capacities it would take too long to charge at “gas stations”).

Additionally, biofuels are a potential solution for waste management. Bio-oils can be made from grasses, algae, agriculture and food processing waste, residues from wood harvesting, as well as municipal solid waste (including tires, construction waste, and non-recyclable plastics). With all these potential feedstocks, plastics and other material that would otherwise be destined for a landfill can be given a second life.

Although it’s not renewable and it releases stored carbon, it is an excellent option for reducing plastics in the environment. Also, food waste that would be landfilled could be processed, and wood harvesting residues that are often burned for no purpose could be converted into bio-oils, bioplastics, and biofuels.

Why This Is Important

This Green New Deal dialogue was an informative talk that covered a wide variety of implementation issues. However, even with the discussion of an all-electric transportation and electric vehicle system, and the discussion of inequality and energy insecurity, none of the speakers discussed how to transition from the cars currently on the road to electric vehicles.

They addressed inequality by discussing affordable housing and energy costs; but not gasoline, or the price of electric vehicles. The panels did not provide enough time for adequate questioning, but of the few panelists I spoke with in person; two did not share their thoughts on biofuels (saying they did not know enough), and one gave a brief answer. Only one speaker, Nina Kelsey, gave a detailed and thoughtful answer.

Climate change presents a series of complex issues that don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything is connected, and these issues have to be looked at as a whole, not one at a time. Biofuels are a piece of this puzzle that is often left out, and the picture will be incomplete without them.

*Margaret Johnston is an Environmental Science and Environmental Sustainability graduate of the University of Mary Washington.  While she seeks a position in her field of study, she serves as a Washington area correspondent for Advanced Biofuels USA.

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