Paris Agreement a call to action

The biofuels industry stands ready to answer the call to action made by the Paris Agreement, and has been doing so for years, writes Tom Buis. This column appears in the April issue of EPM with the headline "A reminder of what's important."
By Tom Buis | March 15, 2016

Earth Day falls on April 22 and is a time for people to reflect on the importance of our planet’s well-being, while serving as a reminder that we have a responsibility to ensure that we have clean air and clean water for ourselves, our children and future generations to come.

Across the globe, there is now more awareness than ever that we must change the way we do things and make a concerted effort towards producing and consuming our energy and fuel in a clean, sustainable fashion. Just last December, 195 nations agreed to the Paris Agreement, a pact drafted during the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, committing to combat global climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This agreement wasn’t a solution in and of itself, but was more a call to action. The biofuels industry stands ready to answer this call, and in fact has already been doing so for years. 

Ethanol plays a key role in reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions, thanks in large part to the renewable fuel standard (RFS). Under the RFS, greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately be reduced by 138 million metric tons, which is the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road. The Paris Agreement noted that it will take a multitude of innovations and initiatives to meet the goals of reducing greenhouse gases, and ethanol will undoubtedly play a major role in that effort.

According to the Argonne National Laboratory, first generation ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 34 percent compared to gasoline. Looking at the picture more broadly, ethanol also lessens the amount of aromatics needed in motor fuel to increase octane. Many aromatics are dangerous chemicals known to cause serious health issues. Essentially, ethanol is the cheapest, cleanest source of octane that we have in the marketplace.

Ethanol production breeds innovation, and we are seeing dramatic improvements in production efficiency and emissions benefits each year. Less water, land and energy are being used to produce ethanol from corn than ever before. In February, a study published by the USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist showed that first generation ethanol has a net positive energy return by factors of more than two-to-one nationally, and as much as four-to-one in parts of the Midwest. Clearly, ethanol production embodies the spirt of Earth Day, in that it’s both innovative and sustainable, providing both food and fuel for our country, while also reducing emissions.

First-generation ethanol production has improved by leaps and bounds, while advanced biofuels show tremendous promise for the future. The Argonne National Laboratory study showed that advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100 percent. These methods produce ethanol from breaking down plant waste, algae, woody biomass and grasses, opening a new door to untapped potential for sustainability. 

All of this innovation in our industry has come at a time when the negative environmental impact of extracting fossil fuels has actually increased. Newer “advancements” in the fossil fuels industry include fracking and the mining of tar sands, both of which pollute our air and contaminate our water. Earth Day is about innovation and hope for a better future. If the Paris Agreement of a few months ago is any indication of things to come, it’s clear that the world’s leaders recognize a need to demand change in the way we produce and consume energy. Our industry is ready, willing and able to help meet that demand.

Author: Tom Buis
Co-chairman, Growth Energy