COP26 a Code Red Wake-up Call for the Biodiesel Industry
Just over 26 years ago, my husband and I founded Pacific Biodiesel on Maui as a recycling solution for our island. Today, our global community faces far greater, increasingly dire effects of a climate now in full-blown crisis—while viable climate-change solutions like biodiesel remain (still) largely underutilized.
We know that the window for meaningful action to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate catastrophes is rapidly closing. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it, climate change has sounded “code red for humanity.”
As the newest member of the board of directors for ICLEI USA, I was especially honored to receive an invitation to participate in the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. I was one of only a handful of delegates to attend the conference, also known as COP26, on behalf of ICLEI USA, one of 24 World Secretariat Offices that is devoted to working with local governments on climate action and sustainability. My combined experience as a pioneering business leader in renewable energy and as a local elected official in an island community uniquely qualified me to help build bridges between representatives from vulnerable communities and national governments. COP26 was slated to be an essential and extremely important meeting of leaders from around the globe—and I embraced this rare opportunity to represent both my island state and my renewable energy industry on a global stage.
From my vantage point, in over a dozen speaking engagements throughout the two weeks, I was astonished to find that biodiesel and biofuels were virtually absent from this global climate-change conversation.
Wind and solar dominated the climate-solution talks at COP26. Yes, we need a mix of renewables. But in addition to ignoring biofuels as an option, the discussions in which I participated offered very little delving into the lifecycle issues that some of these renewables create, such as environmental degradation from mining of cobalt and lithium for batteries and the power struggle among countries that seek to control these critical parts of the supply chain. Rather than engaging residents’ participation through local farming, full-time jobs with wages to support a family and revenue that stays in the community, wind, solar and EV systems are often extractive industries led by multinational corporations—the antithesis of a sustainable, circular-economy approach to solving the climate crisis.
Biodiesel is an established advanced biofuel, readily available for immediate greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions utilizing existing infrastructure and advanced engine technologies. Yet countries are increasingly spending exorbitant amounts to build immense new infrastructure for wind, PV and EV technologies—all while GHG emissions continue to rapidly accumulate in the atmosphere and create critical harm to our planet. And what about the untold number of diesel vehicles around the globe? Are we going to tell residents, and especially farmers, in impoverished countries that they must abandon their diesel trucks and tractors for expensive new EV models? The way out of climate change needs to be a just transition. Particular solutions must not leave behind less fortunate, vulnerable populations.
Another point to consider: as the climate crisis causes more frequent and significantly more powerful hurricanes and other storms, what happens when the majority of cars are EVs and millions of residents forced to evacuate from an approaching storm must wait for hours to charge their vehicles? Or in the aftermath of a catastrophic storm that damages the electric grid and charging stations knocking out power for weeks or longer, EVs would likely sit idle. Biodiesel, in contrast, is a clean transportation fuel that offers reliable, firm power that’s safe and easy to store and transport—keeping cars, trucks and other diesel vehicles on the road during emergency situations.
Biodiesel being largely left out of the COP26 conversation was a significant miss and reveals the misinformation and misperceptions that persist about this renewable fuel. Diesel engines are not the problem; fossil fuel is the problem. A California Air Resources Board report in 2021 found that GHG reductions from biomass-based diesel were in fact responsible for three times the total GHG reductions as electric vehicles. And biodiesel is an important, firm power backup to other renewables. Yet, it is a climate-change solution that seems to be repeatedly left out of the conversations.
To shift gears and gain support, the biodiesel industry must focus on its community-based roots. Clear messaging about the abundant benefits of biodiesel is urgently needed. Biodiesel is a viable, available climate-change solution that immediately helps reduce GHG emissions, supports local economies and strengthens energy security, especially among isolated, vulnerable populations around the globe. And the infrastructure already exists!
In my panel discussions at COP26, I repeatedly brought up community-based biodiesel as an example of the circular economy—utilizing local resources to create products, jobs and industries, which, in turn, benefit that local community through positive economic, social and environmental impacts. Biodiesel produced from locally sourced feedstock like used cooking oil and diversified, regenerative agriculture (to grow crops for food and fuel) is a solution that local communities can easily employ. The agriculture component of biodiesel particularly for rural communities created “lightbulb moments” in the audience during my talks. People got it—biodiesel as an existing climate-change solution resonated, especially for folks from countries where diesel vehicles and generators are still rolling out of the factories.
What gave me the most hope at COP26 were the abundant examples of multinational, multilevel collaboration. Cities and counties making climate-change impacts at the local level, committed to the circular economy. We can’t wait for world leaders or government regulations to get us out of the approaching climate catastrophe. All sustainability is local, and our actions to fight climate change can and must initiate and grow locally.
I sat on several panels centered on collaboration between all levels of governments and their communities. Nobody can do it alone. Governments at all levels need to be working together and engaging their constituents to work seriously on climate issues. National leaders need to understand what corporations already know—consumer pressure is a huge influence. If consumers support you, they’ll buy your products. Public pressure creates the momentum for change. Relying on federal regulations alone is failure. “Boots on the ground” is where it starts, at the local level.
Living in Hawaii is a great privilege but it is also a responsibility—what we call “kuleana.” Island communities like ours are home to beautiful cultures, people and ecosystems; however, we face dire challenges and risks being at the frontline of climate-change impacts, such as sea-level rise, extreme weather, supply-chain disruptions, and the degradation of unique habitats and endangered species. Without serious action, these impacts will be permanent, irreparable and irreversible.
We can all learn from Hawaii’s indigenous tradition of “aloha `aina” and “malama `aina” stretching back centuries, and which guide us on the islands today. Aloha `aina is a love of the land, and malama `aina means to care for and nurture the land. These concepts are rooted in a world view that sees the land as an ancestor and relative, with the belief that if we care for and love the Earth, it will nurture us. Hawaiian land management sustainably fed more than a million people with systems that worked with nature and were based in careful observation of natural systems and human impact.
Today, we draw on this wisdom to address the unsustainable development that has been the hallmark of history following colonization. The Hawaiian word “kuleana” is often taken to mean simply “responsibility.” But it can also mean “privilege.” This reflects an important component of a sustainable worldview: If we are to enjoy the privileges of such a beautiful place, we also have a responsibility to care for it.
My invitation to COP26 was simply breathtaking—both an honor and an immense responsibility. I am deeply committed to continuing to support local climate-change solutions. As a Maui County councilmember and chair of the Climate Action, Resilience and Environment committee, I work with colleagues and staff to support today’s innovators in the private sector, allocate funding for climate action, hold polluters accountable, and move policy and resolutions forward that advance effective solutions to climate change. Furthermore, in my role as Hawaii’s only appointee for the Local Government Advisory Committee to the U.S. EPA, I provide an island perspective at this national table. I take seriously the opportunity to provide guidance on environmental policy, promoting proactive rather than reactive infrastructure, with a focus on circular economies and methods to improve quality of life for communities big and small.
I take great pride in the fact that the community-based biodiesel model Bob and I created with Pacific Biodiesel more than two decades ago now is a shining example of the circular economy. We’ve been pushing this boulder uphill for a long time, and now the benefits of locally produced biodiesel are clear. The green economy should be about everyone making a living instead of a few corporations making a killing.
Author: Kelly King
Co-founder, Pacific Biodiesel