Growing a Sustainable Bioeconomy: More Urgent than Ever

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, March 4, 2019

Editor’s note.  Jessie is a gifted story teller and writer.  We will miss the clarity she brings to many complex policy and political issues.  

Today’s edition of SBFF is the final edition in its current form, as the editor, Jessie Stolark, is departing EESI on March 1.  EESI is currently redesigning its communications products, and you’ll be hearing from us soon!  In today’s final SBFF, Jessie outlines her departing thoughts on the future of the bioeconomy. 

As an EESI Policy Associate and SBFF’s editor for the past several years, I have witnessed many ups and downs in the bioeconomy and the accompanying policy landscape. Looking beyond the constant buzz about EPA, or the endless “will-they-won’t-they” on reforming the RFS, there is a quiet revolution happening in America utilizing biotechnology that doesn’t often make national headlines.

I’ve come to the conclusion that biotechnology is fast changing what’s possible. Whether it’s meatless meat, planes that run on CO2, or fuel made from crop wastes, the pace of developments is increasing at a fast clip. These advances have the potential to reduce our consumption of resources, including energy, water and land, as well as help address unsustainable production of wastes.

The question remains that is whether federal policy will catch up to create a favorable environment for these new products and processes to compete with entrenched fossil energy interests. Today we’re seeing rapid foreign development and investment in the bioeconomy, but the United States is getting left behind due to an unfavorable policy landscape.

Today, the need for sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels couldn’t be clearer. Fossil fuels are not only causing the climate crisis, fossil fuel use is causing devastating health impacts. Over the past several years, EESI focused on the health effects of gasoline use, particularly the petrochemicals used to provide octane, though toxic petrochemicals are present in virtually every aspect of modern life.

And while electrification represents the greatest potential reduction in greenhouse gases and air pollutants, greater amounts of biofuels use can have an immediate and beneficial impact on air quality. Looking forward, we can utilize a mid-level ethanol blend , such as E30, to meet more stringent fuel economy standards and greatly improve air quality, as we continue to electrify the economy. There’s not a moment to lose — the World Health Organization named air pollution from burning fossil fuels the number one threat to public health, with 9 out of 10 people breathing dirty air every day.  Why would we leave solutions on the table?

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has sowed mistrust of cleaner burning biofuels and other forms of renewable biomass utilization in its quest to maintain market share.  But a silver lining has emerged. With the 116th Congress, and a renewed interest in combatting climate change, the bioeconomy and allies have a tremendous opportunity to present the facts on the important role that biomass will play in addressing climate change.

Our unstainable use of fossil fuels for power and transportation is receiving the limelight, but we have to address fossil use in every sector – from heating and cooling to producing steel and concrete in the building sector, as well as the petrochemicals used for everything from growing our food, to plastics, textiles, lubricants, absorbents, and even food ingredients.  In most cases, biobased products are a better choice, and often the only available alternative.

Unfortunately, there still seems to be confusion or reluctance over the role that biomass could and should play in a low carbon economy, despite the potential to sustainably supply a billion tons of biomass annually in the United States, mostly from purpose grown crops, wastes, and agricultural residues.

As someone once told me, biomass can be hard to love. There are so many questions about land use and ecosystems, food versus fuel, and other unintended consequences.  But the modern economy is built on carbon.  The central question, therefore, is whether that carbon be renewable and sustainably sourced, or mined from the earth?  The answer should be clear.

According to both the National Climate Assessment and the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 degree report, there are only a dozen years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Already, at about 0.7 degrees of warming over pre-industrial levels, we are seeing unprecedented levels of extreme weather such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and heatwaves. Indeed, 2017 was the most costly natural disaster year on record in the United States, with $312.7 billion in disaster-related costs.

The good news is that the bioeconomy can play an important role in addressing global emissions – but the industry and stakeholder groups, such as states, manufacturing, the agricultural sector, and NGOs  must have frank, fact-based discussions about the environmental, economic and social benefits, as well as potential drawbacks, of biomass utilization front and center. Whether that means engaging in transparent lifecycle accounting, addressing water quality, or designing landscapes to both grow food, fuel, and biobased crops sustainably, biomass must be “right-sized”.

While it’s easy to point to a perfect vision of the global energy system – one that is as equitable, transparent, and as clean as possible  – we aren’t starting from scratch.  Preserving a livable ecosystem will require some measure of tradeoffs and compromise. As one of my favorite professors was fond of saying, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The bioeconomy’s future is bright – the question is, will we rise to the challenge?