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Life Cycle Analysis and Transportation Energy

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Abstract: As government actors and the private sector attempt to de-carbonize the economy, the role of life cycle analysis (also know as life cycle assessment or “LCA”) has become increasingly important. In this essay, we explore the use of life cycle analysis in the transportation sector to assess its influence in federal and state policy efforts to move to a low carbon energy future. We first define life cycle analysis and explain its use in evaluating the environmental impacts of all stages of a product, from production, to use, to disposal. We then review the use of life cycle analysis in considering the carbon emissions associated with different types of biofuels, primarily ethanol, which now makes up 10 of every gallon of gasoline sold in the United States as a result of federal mandates. This evaluation shows that life cycle analysis for ethanol has undermined many of the basic premises federal policymakers relied upon to enact significant mandates and, for many years, major tax benefits, to promote the production and use of ethanol for transportation fuel. We then discuss the increasing application of life cycle analysis to electric vehicles (EVs), which compares the GHG emissions associated with the production, use, and disposal of EVs with conventional automobiles, and evaluates the source of electricity used to power EVs in different parts of the country. Not surprisingly, the lifecycle GHG emissions associated with an EV driven in California, where electricity is generated primarily by natural gas and renewable energy, are far lower than the GHG emissions associated with an EV driven in West Virginia, which relies almost exclusively on coal-fired electricity. We conclude by reflecting on the ways life cycle analysis can be used effectively to guide policymakers to incentivize the development of environmentally beneficial products and technologies. For instance, if today’s life cycle analysis had been used to evaluate corn ethanol in the 1990s and early 2000s, policymakers may have paused before creating the significant incentives and mandates that exist today and that are now very difficult to eliminate. At the same time, however, there are risks in relying too heavily on life cycle analysis when information gaps exist in comparing alternative fuels and vehicles with traditional fuels and vehicles. Such information gaps may result in creating disincentives for potentially beneficial new products and technologies that, with sufficient support, may be critical to meeting de-carbonization goals in the transportation sector and the economy as a whole.

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