Decarbonizing Transportation to Meet Climate Goals

As nations around the world begin implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, decarbonizing transportation becomes increasingly important in limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
By Leticia Phillips | July 21, 2017

As nations around the world begin implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, decarbonizing transportation becomes increasingly important in limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The scale of the challenge is clear. The transport sector currently contributes 23 percent of energy-related emissions worldwide, and 18 percent of human-generated, economy-wide emissions. Those contributions are growing. From 1990 to 2012, transport emissions grew an average of 0.5 percent in developed countries and an average of 4.8 percent in developing countries. Transport emissions from developing countries could exceed that of developed countries by 2018.

Accordingly, the Paris Agreement targets reducing transport sector emissions to 2 to 3 gigatonnes (Gt) by 2050, instead of increasing to 13 to 15 Gt by 2050 under business-as-usual. The transport sector is among the most difficult and expensive to decarbonize, but we must strive to expand biofuel supply and demand to limit global warming to safe levels.

The world is responding with action to ensure a clean transportation future, while driving economic growth. Brazil’s NDC aims to reduce emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 by increasing biofuels to approximately 18 percent of its overall energy mix by 2030, but it’s not alone. More than 61 percent of all NDCs submitted to the Paris Agreement propose specific transport sector emissions-reduction measures.

While electric vehicles can decarbonize transport, they’re not the only option, especially in developing countries or rural areas. Lowering global transportation emissions requires the participation of developing countries, since this is where transportation will grow fastest in the next 20 years. Biofuels can significantly contribute here—consider the fact that 100 countries around the world, many of them developing nations, already grow sugarcane.

The U.S. EPA has certified sugarcane ethanol as 90 percent cleaner than conventional gasoline on a full life-cycle basis. This finding has repeatedly been confirmed by life-cycle analyses worldwide.

But biofuels’ decarbonization potential isn’t limited to ethanol, and production is diversifying into new clean fuels. Some commercial biofuel technologies can reach virtually zero emissions, and new production techniques could make second-generation ethanol and cellulosic biofuels emissions-negative in the near future. Since cellulose is the most common organic compound found on Earth, turning it into renewable energy is critical to switching away from petroleum-based fuel.

While second-generation ethanol and cellulosic biofuels are still in their early stages, commercial production plants are coming online in America and Brazil, and multiple companies are developing cellulosic ethanol drop-in fuels for use in ground and air transportation. As output rises and experts improve production technologies, production prices will decline—good news for anyone shifting to low-carbon transportation.

Reducing transportation emissions also offers clear paths toward inclusive economic growth. Biofuels represented the second-highest amount of green jobs worldwide in the International Renewable Energy Agency’s Annual Review 2017, with 1.7 million jobs (and 1 million in the sugarcane sector) out of 9.8 million globally. Even better, many of these jobs are concentrated in feedstock supply led by developing nations like Brazil, China and India.

This economic potential is clear in Brazil, where sugarcane ethanol is produced in more than 1,040 municipalities and employs 465,000 people, compared with just 176 municipalities and 120,000 people involved in the oil industry. Ethanol and bioenergy produced from sugarcane already constitute 18.5 percent of Brazil’s energy mix, replacing more than 40 percent of national gasoline demand and avoiding 600 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions since the 1970s, all while using less than 1.5 percent of the country’s arable land.

Reducing emissions from electricity generation is an important first step to slowing climate change, but meeting global decarbonization goals requires cutting transport emissions. Biofuels—particularly sugarcane ethanol—are arguably the cheapest and most sustainable option available to replace fossil fuels in transportation.

Every gallon of biofuel that flows into fuel tanks around the world creates multiple benefits such as job creation, rural electrification, reduced oil imports and short-term public health benefits. Considering all this, it’s easy to see biofuels’ potential to reshape global fuel markets and create inclusive economic growth while expanding long-term climate benefits.

All nations, including the U.S., must work together to encourage biofuel production and consumption, boost private sector investment and innovation, and establish measures to protect the environment.

Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative
Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, UNICA