Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy
Energy and Resources Group, Goldman School of Public Policy
Co-Director, Berkeley Institute of the Environment
Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Research Letters
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
URL: http://rael.berkeley.edu & http://erl.iop.org
Date: March 20, 2007
The year 2007 may well go down in history as the year we finally began to seriously act collectively to address global warming. I say ‘collectively’ intentionally, and for a specific reason. We have already seen a number of nations – the entire European Union, all of Scandinavia, Japan, and a significant number of individual states in the United States – all commit to varying degrees to climate legislation and targets that could, if they become universal – finally put us on a path to address global warming. These efforts are each significant, and include such key goals as those in Sweden, that aims for an oil free economy by 2020, to the Global Warming Solutions Act in California that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the entire state economy by 25% over the next two decades.
Even the U. S. President Bush has said some of the right words. In his 2006 State of the Union Address he said, ‘America is addicted to oil”. That line became the most quoted aspect of his address. On Monday, January 22 a powerful and diverse group of industry leaders from General Electric, Alcoa, Duke Energy, and others – termed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership – called for federal leadership and action to meaningfully address climate. They urged a discussion of a cap and trade system.
Now, we have had two added critical announcements. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared unequivocally that the world is heating up beyond any natural cyclical variations, and that there is over 90 per cent certainty that the phenomenon of climate change is caused by humans. The nail is now firmly in the coffin of the debate over global warming, no matter what a few well-paid nay-sayers may say. The issue now turns to who will lead, and how will we collectively address the issue, and how quickly will we find efficient ways to not only address this problem, to turn it into an opportunity to make our economies stronger and more equitable (Kammen, 2007). This is important because global warming is only one the many reasons to support the transition to a clean, renewable energy future – a compelling case can also be made on the basis of economic development, energy security, or other environmental benefits (Kapadia, Fripp and Kammen, 2004).
The same week as the IPCC announcement British Petroleum, to some ‘Beyond Petroleum’ announced that our team at the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign won a historic 500 million, ten year, award to develop and disseminate biofuels to address global warming and local environmental concerns. The consortium has formed the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to take on this challenge.
There will be a great deal of attention and discussion about EBI in the coming months and years. It is a major endeavor – in fact the largest university research grant ever – and is aimed squarely at what has been the most challenging greenhouse gas issue – liquid fuels. It also presents a tremendous opportunity. In work published in Science in January, 2006, my research group published a paper (Farrell, et al, 2006) that provided an energy content comparison of gasoline, corn-based ethanol, and cellulosic-ethanol, and found that the benefits of a transition to cellulosic ethanol can be dramatic in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A simple expansion in corn-based ethanol use, however, produces only very modest greenhouse gas benefits, although it could be used as a first step to move to clean biofuels more widely, and corn ethanol can be justified on an energy security argument as a way to offset gasoline. Put more simply, however, ethanol, made from corn and refined to ethanol in a plant run on coal can be worse for the environment than using regular gasoline, while cellulosic materials turned into ethanol in a plant run by natural gas, or far better wind power or the plant’s own waste energy and heat, is far, far better than gasoline.
The EBI effort represents a chance to generalizes on this result: all fossil fuels, nor all biofuels are ‘created equal’, or are equally good or bad for the environment. What is needed now is the sophistication to work towards low-carbon fuels. California has adopted this in Executive Order 1-07, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard that will be implemented statewide through a series of ‘early actions’ to begin this July, and then through a longer-term planning process to be coordinated with the Global Warming Solutions Act.
What is needed next are a series of regional or national efforts to examine what the lowest carbon fuels are for different regions: plug in hybrid vehicles running off a clean grid; clean biofuels; high efficiency vehicle standards, and so forth. The new EBI can bring the intellectual muscle of a globally-focused but locally-based research team in California, a global leader in environmental legislation and in Illinois, a major agricultural center, jointly to bear on the pressing issues of carbon emissions reductions. The time to act is now.
References (all available at http://rael.berkeley.edu):
Farrell A. E., Plevin, R. J. Turner, B. T., Jones, A. D. O’Hare, M. and Kammen, D. M. (2006) “Ethanol correction and clarification”, Science, 312, 1748.
Kammen, D. M. (2006) “The Rise of Renewable Energy”, Scientific American, September, 82 – 91.
Kammen, D. M., Kapadia, K. and Fripp, M. (2004). “Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate?” A Report of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.