Electric cars alone won’t save the planet

July 6, 2023

Is the future truly “electric”? Solutions from the Land is certainly energized by the innovations of forward-thinking farmers and ranchers. But we’re concerned about the push from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toward an all-electric-vehicle approach to decarbonizing the transportation sector.

EPA is “betting the farm” on electric vehicles while missing opportunities to reap multiple benefits—including doubling its projected carbon emission reductions—by taking a more holistic approach that values biofuels and the farmers and ranchers who produce them.

We can see why electrification is an important 21st century emissions reduction pathway. Cars with zero tailpipe emissions would be a boon in the quest to clean up air quality in the transportation sector.

According to 2021 data from the EPA, the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is transportation (29% of total emissions), with light-duty vehicles (the ones most of us drive, weighing up to 8,500 pounds) representing 58% of those emissions.

Interestingly, the second largest contributor, shortly behind transportation, at 25% of emissions, is electricity. So why are we putting all our hopes for a greener economy in electricity?

We don’t deny that electric vehicles (EVs) can and should be part of our country’s plan to clean up greenhouse gas emissions. EVs are gaining popularity, and it’s smart to diversify and keep all options on the table. But we should be careful not to overutilize one possibility.

There are downsides to electrifying transportation.

For one, there are no established supply chains capable of supplying the raw materials needed to manufacture the millions of vehicles required to meeting projected market demand, especially not in the next decade as suggested by EPA’s proposed rule, “Multi-Pollutant Emissions Standards for Model Years 2027 and Later Light-Duty and Medium-Duty Vehicles.”

Plus, all those new EVs would need to be supported by new chargers—lots of them, in major metropolitan areas and across the rural countryside. While the cars themselves would not generate greenhouse gas emissions, the extra electric load would very likely put more pressure on the grid and require more coal and natural gas inputs for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation,” says Bart Ruth, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer who co-chairs the 25x’25 Alliance, a farmer-driven renewable energy advocacy group. “As a nation, we must reduce our dependency on oil, for the good of our economic and national security, and for our environment. However, focusing only on electrification is not the answer when we could be building on the progress we’ve already made with liquid renewable energies, like ethanol and biodiesel.”

The proposed rule is especially disappointing for corn and soybean farmers, as EPA already scaled back from its original proposal on the amount of biofuels it will require to be blended into transportation fuel from 2023 to 2025.

The best and most recent data suggests that the adoption of even mid-level ethanol blends would reduce pollution emissions at least as much as EPA’s electrification approach—at a far less cost.

And, even if the electrification program could be successful, a complimentary fuel improvement program would double EPA’s projected emissions reduction. 

Let’s not forget that agricultural production is unique in sequestering carbon, not just emitting it. Agriculture emits approximately 10% of U.S. greenhouse emissions and is working to achieve its great potential for reducing those emissions.

Farmers and ranchers want to sequester carbon because doing so benefits their ability to grow crops profitability. We need to continue empowering our agricultural producers to sequester more carbon, and the public has an interest in this. Soils with more carbon tend to be healthier and more productive, enabling farmers to not just grow food, feed, fiber and renewable energy, but also to provide essential ecosystem services connected to water quality, air quality, pollinator and other wildlife habitat, and rural economic sustainability.

Can electricity do all that alone? We think not.

Yesterday, SfL joined in signing a letter to EPA calling on the agency to issue a new proposed multipollutant rule that:

  1. incorporates requirements to improve fuel quality by
    • establishing a higher federal octane standard while allowing higher blends of ethanol; and
    • incentivizing the reduction of carbon and aromatic compounds via reformulation or alternatively increasing ethanol blending.

  2. provides incentives for automakers to produce flex-fuel vehicles by
    • creating alternative certification pathways for higher ethanol blends; and
    • correcting the problems with R-Value and CO2 penalty that other commentors have identified and re-establishing the Volumetric Conversion Factor in the fuel economy calculation algorithm.

3. adopts a life-cycle analysis approach to calculating and comparing emissions from different technologies.

Electricity will be part of the solution. Electricity can even be generated through agricultural sources, though not at scale yet. But let’s not limit ourselves. Let’s not underestimate the value of biofuels and the capabilities of farmers and ranchers to sustainably fuel our nation.

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