tl;dr: The best solution today might not be the best solution tomorrow, and that is ok.
Let's face it. If I were to beg you to watch the 22 June 2018 House Energy & Commerce Committee's Environment Subcommittee hearing, you would either flat out refuse or find a reason to do anything else but that. However, I can tell you with no exaggeration whatsoever that it was during this exact hearing that I was introduced to a term I instantly fell in love with. Colin O'Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation testified that a necessary component of future energy policy was "technological agnosticism." He was referring to the consequences of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and the unfortunate decision to shape policy on one particular energy solution, corn starch ethanol. What particularly rang true to me was when he stated that the technology and solution deemed most promising in 2007 is not the fuel that holds the greatest potential in 2018. And believe it or not, what held the most promise in 2018 might not even be the best solution in 2022.
To the average American, ethanol is a term that is controversial but most probably aren't exactly sure why. They have heard politicians rail against subsidies given to farmers to grow obscene amounts of corn or they have heard that this is a vital component to reaching domestic energy independence. The problem is that it is really challenging to decide what to do when both arguments have large kernels (ha ha ha) of truth. How long both are true involves a ton of guesswork. What we do know now that we didn't know when corn starch ethanol was starting to appear in our fuel blend is that ethanol is actually more carbon intensive than gasoline. Perhaps shaping our laws to promote the production of ethanol at the expense of other biofuel alternatives wasn't a good idea.
As people start to learn more about the complexities of calculating carbon intensities, they can understandably get confused about what is correct, who the experts are, and sadly if it even really matters. In today's world, we seem to be increasingly sceptical of science. Alarming numbers of people seem to be convinced that they know more about challenging fields like sustainability than the people who spent years of their lives studying and working in this space. It isn't that surprising when we take into consideration the vast amounts of information coming at us. Oftentimes, this information is directly contradictory to what we perceived to be established fact just a few moments ago.
I wish that sustainability was as simple as arithmetic. Unfortunately, it isn't. It's constantly evolving because the conditions under which we make projections are never static long enough to be 100% correct. As we try to establish messaging about what actions to take, it often means that we are using information that doesn't quite add up. I had a recent discussion about how using a new plastic bag at the grocery store has a lower carbon footprint than using a paper bag. However, paper bags biodegrade way easier than plastic bags. There isn't necessarily a clear best choice here. I understand it is confusing, but lots of worthwhile things are. Sustainability is not the outlier here. And yet, it often gets the brunt of the criticism that all the "science" behind it is just a bunch of nonsense.
In the passion to be the best stewards of this planet as possible, many environmentalists tend to go all in on several topics. My fear is that while understandable, their zeal might be premature, and when we have a better idea of the consequences, they might not be as wise as initially believed. For example, many people are under the impression that an electric vehicle is the only responsible decision for our personal transportation needs. Large numbers also think solar energy is by far the best solution for renewable energy sources. Are these the same individuals who would have shouted down to someone who wasn't 100% sold on corn-starch ethanol? The conundrum is that we all know immediate actions must be taken to prevent some seriously damaging events from occurring. That urgency causes us to believe that any action is better than delayed action, or none at all.
The reality is that we didn't create this mess overnight, and there is no easy process to erase hundreds of years of damage that humanity has inflicted on this planet when it comes to carbon emissions. The lesson that Mr. O'Mara suggests will sadly go unheeded. We want the quickest solution, the easiest solution, and the most politically expedient solution. When we find it, we want to go all in on that choice. I sincerely hope that electric vehicles truly become the most sustainable option for us. Will I be surprised if we discover that the environmental consequence of rare earth mineral mining, lithium production, removal of gasoline-powered vehicles, and battery disposal is much larger than originally anticipated? Nope. We need to support other options simultaneously, like cellulosic ethanol, biodiesels, algae feedstocks, and even hydrogen.
Technologies constantly change and improve, and if we corner ourselves into policy positions that don't allow for these solutions to get to market, then we are just repeating the same mistakes over and over again. It truly is reminiscent of the famous saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The Renewable Fuel Standard was not a bad bill when it was created. As we enter the last year that it is in place, unfortunately, we can definitely state that it might have done more damage than good. We live in a world where science can change faster than our ability to adapt to it. This is not a bad thing. What is bad is when we believe that the changes that are happening now are static and that all of us should be climbing on board at the expense of better alternatives down the road. I urge all of you to not just blindly follow the current trend but to do your due diligence and explore other options before joining the masses. There will be ups and downs as far as our efforts to make this planet a livable one, but we cannot afford to give up just because it's hard or confusing. We have shown that humans are one of the most adaptive species to ever live on this planet, and we need that skill set now more than ever.