Discounting the Future of Biofuels

Biofuels & Climate Change

It appears that global leaders’ faith in energy technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to oil is waning, particularly for biofuels, as reported in GreenInc. Respondents to the survey, which included 1,000 environmental experts, ranked energy conservation and efficiency technologies as having the greatest potential impact, both short- and long-term.

Some 44 percent of respondents also said they expect that the current economic crisis will hinder progress toward an effective international climate agreement. Katherine Sierra, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development, noted, “The development challenge is to accelerate or maintain robust economic growth in poorer countries while also dealing with the impacts of climate change. The financial situation is no justification for postponing action on climate change. Climate change is not waiting, so we cannot wait either.”

These sentiments appear to be relevant to a rather arcane debate about the application of a discount rate to greenhouse gas reductions. The debate over the discount rate may become a more prominent issue, since it is a feature of the EPA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act. It also appears that the EPA would apply a discount rate to greenhouse gas emission reductions in the life cycle assessments of biofuels, under the RFS.

A discount rate is used in cost-benefit analyses as a way to measure current costs against the value of future benefits. In applying the theory to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the idea is that the benefits are for future generations and on a worldwide scale, while the costs of deploying reduction technologies are paid by specific individuals today. Further, there is uncertainty about which technologies will provide the greatest benefit and investing in one may come at the expense of investing in others.

Gary Becker, the noted economist and University Professor at the University of Chicago, explains it by saying,

Future generations would be better off if the present generation, instead of investing the $800 billion in greenhouse gas-reducing technologies, invested the same amount in capital that would be available to future generations.
“Common sense also dictates that one recognizes that technologies will be much improved in the future, including technologies related to improving health, income, and the environment. A positive and non-negligible discount rate is the formal way to recognize the importance of these and related considerations.”

But environmentalists have traditionally opposed the use of a discount rate for environmental benefits. Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University, responded to the use of the discount rate in EPA’s ANPR on her own blog page, saying, “Discounting is a technique used to reflect the idea that events occurring in the future are not as important as events occurring now. By using a fairly low discount rate, EPA avoided the severe trivialization of the future that often attends use of discounting.”

Elsewhere, though, she took issue with the use of any discount rate for environmental benefits:

We have said that the federal government places too low a value on human life; that it devalues the future through discounting; that it fixates on the costs and dismisses the benefits of environmental protection; that it slights the worth of effects that cannot be counted.
“Cost-benefit analysis is a deeply flawed device that has never been the environmentalist’s friend. It impedes rather than aids understanding of the concrete consequences of regulations. It would behoove the next president — and all who value environmental protection — to do more than fiddle around the margins of old debates, and to question whether a decision-making framework that can stare environmental catastrophe in the face and declare it ‘efficient’ is really the best we can do.”

Even proponents of including international land use change calculations in the EPA’s life cycle assessment of biofuels may take issue with the application of a discount rate to the calculation, or at least a high rate. Mark Delucchi is a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and developer of the Lifecycle Emissions Model. He notes that in the context of indirect land use for biofuels, “the discount rate determines the value of the reversal of the initial change: a zero discount rate gives it a value equal to that of the initial change; a high discount rate gives it no value.” And, “If the discount rate is very large, then we don’t care at all about the future reversion of land use and reversal of the initial change in emissions; we care only about initial change in land use and emissions.” In other words, using the discount rate in this context assumes that the carbon debt attributed to biofuels due to land use change is never paid back, which would be incorrect. Delucchi argues that a positive discount rate applied to the life cycle analysis should be reduced to reach zero over time.

However the debate on discount rate plays out in policies on greenhouse gas reductions and the Renewable Fuel Standard, the theory does seem to reflect the preferences of environmental leaders – that we not use biofuels today but wait for a better technology to come along in the future. The risk for them is that everyone’s faith in the ability to produce clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will start to fall.

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