Q: International organizations and governments across the globe are introducing and implementing steps towards CO2 emission reductions, while energy producers and consumers are adopting the emerging demands to comply with the requirements.
Looking at the wide spectrum of issues, ranging from the obvious need for a lifestyle change in order to accomplish the 2050 emission saving targets down to consequences and implications the proposed steps will eventually bring with them, what are in your opinion the most important aspects to be considered?
A: The majority of consumers do not want a lifestyle change unless “change” equates to a better, more prosperous lifestyle. Current decarbonization initiatives do not necessarily include a reduction in energy consumption but rather an expansion of renewable energy production to bolster economies. This is especially true in emerging economies. With this in mind, policy makers have the complex challenge of increasing energy availability while decreasing the carbon intensity to levels of “net zero” GHG emissions. This is a difficult proposition and uphill battle.
If, however, it can be shown that this is possible (i.e., no negative impacts on lifestyles), then public acceptance will continue to drive change as we’ve seen in the financial industries (private investors demanding progress on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) improvements). Governments will have to show unified support of such programs and be willing to act on existing agreements and international accords. If the unified approach for decarbonization can be monetized by private industry, then competition between industries will rapidly drive decarbonization. This competition will ultimately drive down costs to consumers and not impede the economic growth.
However, if initiatives designed to reduce emissions impose on consumers financial burdens or force a change in lifestyle, they are unlikely to be successful in the long term. It is vital that any “environmental sustainability” initiatives must simultaneously be “economically sustainable” or they will fail. This has to be the central effort – reduce emissions while supporting consumers.
Q: The European Union appears to be focused on banning internal combustion engines (ICE) as one of their pillars in the attempt to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. What - in your opinion - is required to assess the full impact of this ban? Some countries and cities target to ban the registration of new ICEs by as early as 2030. Is this even possible? What needs to be addressed in a complete and proper lifecycle analysis in order to mitigate potentially negative implications on the environment?
A: 1) Policy makers must understand the current fleet make-up and discern the relative carbon intensity of all vehicles. A basic understanding of all emissions sources is necessary for good policy making. Policy makers should be assessing vehicle use cases that can be easily decarbonized versus those that are more difficult to decarbonize – a one size fits all approach will not work. Not all use cases can be met with electric vehicles. Policy makers must review all options for decarbonization and include hydrogen fuel cells, renewable compressed natural gas, e-fuels, biofuels, advanced combustion engines, hybrid technologies and any other drivetrain and fuel types that can be reasonably supported by existing infrastructure and deliver progress in lowering overall emissions. Ignoring the role of these various alternatives to benefit various use cases will impede progress.
2) Creating simple policy concepts that conveniently fit into headlines and political stump speeches, such as banning the sale of internal combustion engines by a specific date, do not recognize the complexity of the market. From the diversity of transportation vehicles and their duty cycles to the potential impact on disadvantaged and rural communities, successfully pursuing decarbonization strategies require careful attention to nuances and long-term strategic planning. Nothing is impossible but bad policies always create unnecessary challenges that are often disproportionately distributed throughout society. Careful deliberations should consider all impacts and only move forward once that has been completed. Once completed, low carbon policies should move swiftly, attacking low hanging decarbonization fruit immediately (where existing infrastructure support already exists), while investing to support the decarbonization of the remaining transportation sectors which may take 20 - 30 years.
3) Addressing transportation emissions should be done by evaluating the lifecycle emissions of specific sectors and options, considering emissions that extend from cradle to grave. Critical to this evaluation is the incorporation of vehicles and fuels/energy in a holistic, systemic approach. One cannot and should not exist without the other and only a comprehensive assessment of potential solutions can yield the most effective results. Such lifecycle assessments should be completed using publicly available and transparent models, such as the GREET model developed by Argonne National Laboratory.
Q: Looking at the oil refiners and automobile manufacturers, are the industries ready for these moves? What else do you think needs to be done? Could there be any possible supply bottlenecks unfolding? Are waste management systems in Europe adequate, looking at i.e. battery recycling for EVs?
A: It appears as though refiners and automobile manufactures are taking steps to broaden their business models to include low carbon fuel and energy production and more low or zero emissions vehicles. The challenge facing both industries is the premature conclusion that there is only one solution to the decarbonize transportation, and this hamstrings opportunities to explore new options that might provide significant reductions in emission, faster and at a lower cost than the path towards electrifying everything. Electric vehicles have a bright future and will play a significant role in the transportation sector, but opening the opportunities for advanced biofuels, renewable fuels, lower carbon fuels and improved efficiency combustion engines could deliver emissions benefits in the near term while electrification is expanding. Meanwhile, we know there is significant investment in research to improve battery technology, to reduce the reliance on rare earths and to improve battery recycling and repurposing. All of this should be done concurrently, but the signals being given by global leaders to industry is that they see only one path forward, and that represents the greatest impediment to advancements.
Q: According to a recent IEA report, global coal demand for power generation has been falling during the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the impact of movement restrictions and lockdowns, but appears to be set to rebound, particularly so in Asia, as economies open up again. The IEA report points at some aspects and requirements to decarbonize power generation first in order to successfully decarbonize other sectors, such as transportation. What is your view on this?
A: If the transportation sector is to become more reliant on electric powertrains, then it is incumbent upon the power sector to decarbonize. A pending Fuels Institute report compared the lifecycle carbon emissions of combustion engines and electric vehicles when operating in low and high carbon intense sectors and found that combustion engines are cleaner over 200,000 miles that a comparable electric vehicle when the carbon profile of the power grid is high. Decarbonizing the power grid, however, seems to be tilting towards the extreme, casting doubt against using natural gas and nuclear in addition to coal. This would force the sector to rely exclusively on hydro, geo-thermal, wind and solar, a transition that will take a very long time and will likely be very expensive.
Q: The Asian Clean Fuels Association has been working closely with its sister company Sustainable Fuels (formerly: EFOA) in Europe to develop a “Vison of the Future: Towards Sustainable and Clean Mobility in Europe”. In the roadmap to lifecycle climate neutrality a range of advanced, liquid fuel solutions for ICEs are being introduced, which has found political acclaim in the EU. Similar developments have been observed in Japan. Advanced fuel ethers play a major role in those solutions.
What is your view on this? Do you consider this as a possible, interim solution for Asia and other developing economies, on their path towards a climate-neutral economy in the future, thinking about gaining some time to develop appropriate waste management systems and address concerns surrounding the environmental impact of power generation first?
A: Exploring lower carbon liquid fuels options should be a priority for all regions, especially in developing economies where transitioning to new vehicle technologies may not be a feasible approach. It is important that decarbonization strategies are customized to take advantage of local resources and capabilities to make progress. Each country will have to assess the availability of necessary feedstocks and develop policies that are appropriate. The conversion of waste steams to fuels represents a viable opportunity that should be explored, especially if the process represents a lower lifecycle emissions profile that the fuel it is seeking to replace.
Q: What else can Asia learn from the European example? What are the key aspects for Asian policy makers, industries and other stakeholders?
A: Early low carbon fuel programs will require significant investments and public funding support. However, they should be designed to help establish the industry and not sustain indefinitely. Credit based low carbon fuel programs and fuel/vehicle performance standards are good tools that allow industry to prepare and even take advantage of these programs. Early adopters will be increasingly competitive and will have advantages over non-adopters. Policies such as these must be clear and long-standing in order for stakeholders and industries to obtain the necessary finances to build and grow a new industry.
Q: We would like to thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you and for sharing your views and concerns with our readers. Are there any other points, not covered by our questions, which you deem important to raise in order to enable the reader to gain more insight into the pros and cons of banning combustion engine vehicles?
A: The Fuels Institute has published research on environmental policies and their impacts on emissions. This is one of the few reports that considers the costs of each policy. We would encourage others to review the document at https://www.fuelsinstitute.org/Research/Reports/Impact-of-Transportation-Related-Environmental-Ini , all of our research is peer reviewed and available at no cost.
We will also be publishing more whitepapers and research comparing the LCA evaluation of ICE vehicles versus EVs and the respective energy sources, the decarbonization potential of biofuels, the diversity and decarbonization potential of the medium and heavy duty transportation sector and an assessment of the potential advancements in the combustion engine and liquid fuels sectors that may derive from ongoing research and development projects. All will be published and available on our website within the next year.
We greatly appreciate this opportunity to work with ACFA and we hope some of our responses are helpful to your mission.
For our readers’ reference, a complete copy of the Fuels Institute’s policy consideration on the “Proposals to Ban the Sale of Combustion Engine Vehicles” can be downloaded here.