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Sustain to gain: March 2010 Archives

As insights from climate sciences become more and more policy relevant, dominate international negotiations and begin to reshape industrial policies of advanced as well as developing economies, these insights become themselves a political issue. In recent months, some errors in the latest IPCC Assessment Report have been rightly uncovered, and there is appropriate pressure on climate scientists to work even more accurately. Yet these shortcomings have also been used to attack the credibility of (climate) sciences per se. To understand these public relations campaigns, a book published last autumn--i.e. before the campaign's start--is of some interest. Entitled Climate Cover-Up - The Crusade to Deny Global Warming written by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, the book accumulates valuable insights on the backdrop to what they call "crusade".

The main points can be summarized as follows:

  • A number of fake grassroots organiziations (so-called astroturfs) produce and distribute documents and press releases featuring doubts on results from climate sciences.
  • Grassroots organizations and higher level think-tanks (such as the Cato Institute of the Heartland Institute) are said to receive funding from the oil and coal industries.
  • Initial focus is on provincial media that doesn't have resources to do research on their own.
  • A number of so-called climate "experts" are employed who typically lack expertise in climate science but - as a relevant qualification - know the PR business and how to frame messages.
  • A main strategy is to induce doubts rather than to produce valuable counter evidence. Rather than winning the argument it is sufficient to keep climate science from winning the argument.
  • The media is then overwhelmed with information and - rather than trying to understand the scientific literature itself - prefers to present a two-sided story with "experts" from different sides. Joe Romm specifically critizes The Washington Post and The New York Times for this. These two media should have sufficient resources to do real science reporting.

Another piece of strategy is labeled "The O.J. Simpson Moment" by Bill McKibben [see footnote below]. Altogether, Climate Cover-Up accumulates valuable information and evidence of how the public perception of climate change is formed by public relation agencies. On the downside, Climate Cover-Up is a sometimes tedious read - more a small encyclopedia on climate misconception than a brilliant piece of journalism. However, one can appreciate the author's effort to gather this information as it provides the reader with the tools to understand the current wave of media outbursts. Of course, the dynamics have already changed again in the last months. It seems that rather than focusing on inducing doubts on climate facts, the post-Copenhagen game is now on to induce doubts on climate science institutions such as the IPCC. Finally, Climate Cover-Up focuses mostly on North America. However, it would be interesting to read about the European side, too.

Footnote "If anything, [O.J. Simpson's defense team] were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him "a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America's worst nightmare, and the personification of evil." His only real audience was the jury, many of whom had good reason to dislike the Los Angeles Police Department, but the team managed to instill considerable doubt in lots of Americans tuning in on TV as well. That's what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be. Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we've ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won't be overwhelming and it's unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)?  That pretty much guarantees you'll get something wrong."

As by volume the most relevant renewable fuel standard world wide, a closer look at the details of this regulation is worthwhile - to understand the issues behind decarbonization policies in transport.  The RFS2 details that

“EPA is making threshold determinations based on a methodology that includes an analysis of the full lifecycle of various fuels, including emissions from international land-use changes resulting from increased biofuel demand. EPA has used the best available models for this purpose, and has incorporated many modifications to its proposed approach based on comments from the public, a formal peer review, and developing science. EPA has also quantified the uncertainty associated with significant components of its analyses, including important factors affecting GHG emissions associated with international land use change.”

Specific lifecycle GHG emission thresholds for each of four types of renewable fuels were established, requiring a percentage improvement compared to lifecycle GHG emissions for gasoline or diesel. One of these fuels, ethanol produced from corn starch produced at a new natural gas facility using advanced efficient technologies will meet the 20% reduction threshold compared to the 2005 gasoline baseline (says EPA). Other fuels meet the 50% or 60% benchmark.

Iowa harvest 2009 (Bill Whittaker, licenced under GNU free documentation licence)

While the life cycle methodology of the EPA if fairly comprehensive, a few important caveats were noted in a review of the RFS2 by Richard Plevin:

    • EPA performs its analysis in a projected 2022 world, assuming a variety of technology changes. This is similar to accounting for today’s emissions from coal power plants as if they had implemented anticipated CCS technology. In 2012 all and in 2017 most corn ethanol pathways analyzed by the EPA do not meet the 20% GHG reduction requirement, or even produce greater GHG emissions than the gasoline baseline.
    •  In the EPA model corn ethanol achieves productivity gains without additional use of fertilizer. The peak of corn ethanol production is achieved in 2016 -  inducing most ILUC - while productivity assumptions refer to 2022 with additional 9.4% crop yield. Hence, ILUC are systematically underestimated.
    •  EPA attributes large soil carbon sequestration to biodiesel, most likely for increased used of no-till. However, no-till may increase N2O emissions (Six et. al). There is uncertainty on this issue, but EPA treats net soil carbon sequestration as a fact.
    •  Cellulosic ethanol obtains a low GHG rating by co-product credits generated by electricity from biochemical cellulosic refineries that displaces the average US grid electricity. Taking the average US grid as benchmark is a courageous assumption. More detailed analysis could significantly change the life cycle emissions.
    •  An additional supply of biofuels reduces the world market price of petroleum, by this increasing its demand. In one study, the global petroleum effect is estimated to be around 27% implying that each MJ of biofuel replaces 0.73 MJ of petroleum (Stoft, 2009). Hence, biofuels that are less then 27% below gasoline baseline could have a net positive global warming effect. This effect is acknowledged but not modeled by EPA.

Interested readers should consult the detailed analysis of Richard Plevin (here). Most importantly perhaps is the treatment of uncertainty. EPA performs a basic  uncertainty analysis. A number of uncertainties are completely ignored, most importantly the uncertainty about the fraction of land displaced by biofuels that must be replaced elsewhere and the assumed production period (Plevin et al., forthcoming). As a result, numbers are presented with relative certainty where epistemic uncertainty dominates. There are two additional important issues that go beyond pure carbon accounting. First, there is considerabe interaction between biofuel and food production. The EPA’s comprehensive analysis treats reduction in food consumption, e.g. in India and Africa, as a GHG benefit. Without these shift from food to fuel production, biodiesel from soybean would not meet the threshold. Second, the economic feasability of large scale cellulosic ethanol production is unclear. For example, target values for biodiesel have already been scaled down by more than 90% for 2010. 

In summary, EPAs carbon accounting should be taken with some care. In particular, today’s corn ethanol may have higher than baseline gasoline GHG emissions (e.g., Hertel et al., 2010). By focussing on potential 2022 technologies, this emission disbenefit is insufficiently reflected. Some policy maker pressure the EPA with respect to corn ethanol, arguing that corn ethanol production decreases energy independence and produces jobs. However, from this perspective, pro-corn ethanol policies should be designed from the perspective of jobs and energy independence, rather than using the RSF2 as camouflage.


Hertel, T. W., A. Golub, et al. (2010). “Global Land Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impacts of U.S. Maize Ethanol: Estimating Market-Mediated Responses.” BioScience 60(3): 223-231.

Plevin, R. J., M. O’Hare, et al. (forthcoming). The greenhouse gas emissions from market-mediated land use change are uncertain, but potentially much greater than previously estimated, UC Berkeley.

Six, J., S. M. Ogle, et al. (2004). “The potential to mitigate global warming with no-tillage management is only realized when practised in the long term.” Global Change Biology 10(2): 155-160.

Stoft, S. (2009). “The Global Rebound Effect Versus California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard