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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Low-Carb Diet For Your Car

Air Date: Week of

The issue of climate change has ushered in a whole new lexicon to describe the effects of the warming of the planet, as well as possible solutions. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the emergence of a new term you’re likely to hear a lot more of – “low carbon fuel.”


CURWOOD: Low carb is a diet, right. Well nowadays, low carb doesn’t just mean low carbohydrate to slim down from the excesses of sugar and starch. It also means low carbon, to slim down the energy mix from the excess of carbon rich emissions of gases such as CO2 and methane, that promote global warming. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports from Los Angeles on the emergence of low carbon in the lexicon.

LOBET: The other day, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that refiners are going to have to start selling more alternative fuel in this state. Only he didn’t exactly say that. He said oil producers would have to start producing more “low carbon fuel” -- ten percent less carbon by 2020. At the announcement, the phrase was suddenly on all the speakers’ lips.


It’s easy to see why the governor would announce such a change—California has now capped the amount of carbon it’s allowed to emit. You can expect this new fuel rule to be just one in an ongoing string of carbon-clamping measures.

But what about the use of that phrase? One that few, if any people, have heard before, or can define? It turns out the state is trying to do something new: Ethanol is a compound with two molecules of carbon, compared with eight molecules of carbon in gasoline. But some ethanol, and other so-called alternative fuels, require tons of carbon energy and carbon-based fertilizers and pesticides to grow, then they are transported in tankers that burn carbon fuel to distilleries or refineries that burn more carbon fuel. California is trying to distinguish among the various ethanols and biodiesels, and favor only those biofuels that use less net carbon in their creation and transport.

At transportation research centers at UC Davis and Berkeley, engineers are working out the details for carbon-grading each fuel. They’ll take into account – did it come from corn, or from a waste product? Was it distilled using coal-fired electricity? Or using methane captured off dairy cow manure?

And it turns out the researchers making these calculations will be trading notes with European colleagues. The European Union just proposed a low-carbon standard for its fuels that is almost identical to California’s.

Will other states mandate low-carbon fuel? Their first step would probably be to pass a carbon cap in their legislature. Maryland, Florida and New York may soon consider such moves.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.



UC Davis Spotlight: Low-carbon diet

California Office of the Govenor on AB-32: "Gov. Schwarzenegger Signs Landmark Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions"


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