Has California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard Actually Increased Carbon Emissions?

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Last year California passed a much-heralded law requiring oil companies to cut the carbon intensity of their fuel 10 percent by 2020. The state is allowing ethanol to be used as one low-carbon substitute, and recently raised the cap on ethanol in gasoline from six to ten percent. You’ve probably read about the ways the ethanol craze contributes to higher food prices around the world, but what nobody has calculated, until now, is how this affects ethanol’s true carbon footprint. In an analysis released January 17th, two UC Berkeley researchers found that ethanol actually produces more carbon emissions than gasoline. As a result, the carbon intensity of California fuel has ironically risen, between 3 and 33 percent.

 

The researchers, professors Michael O’Hare and and Alexander Farrell, take issue with the model state regulators used to calculate ethanol’s carbon output, arguing that it did not factor in the indirect effects on the global food supply. Among other things, higher corn prices cause farmers half-way around the world to convert more forests into farmland, and those trees are then burned or decay, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. The professors pointed this out in a letter sent earlier this month to the California Air Board, which is discussing changing its carbon model in light of the findings.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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