The Ethics and Morals of Renewable Fuel

By Dr. Pat Gruber PhD, CEO, Gevo, Inc.

Sustainability is a principle that makes sense on every level. For Gevo, it means adhering to the highest standards of environmental and economic responsibility, using the latest synthetic biology and industrial chemistry to achieve something that’s better for us, and for the whole world.

For energy and transportation fuels, sustainability means we are drawing from resources that won’t be exhausted by normal use and will replenish themselves naturally over time, using naturally occurring systems, and reusing the same basic blocks to derive the energy we need. Sustainability in this definition means the human population is living within our means, where the systems and resources provided by the earth can support us—it can sustain us.

Sustainability also makes sense economically, if you are able to suspend the quarterly profit motive for a moment and think about the long game. It’s hard to do, I know, and it requires a new way of thinking. There’s infinitely more money to be made from renewable resources than those that are unrenewable. Fossil fuels may make lots of money now, but it’s a shortsighted play in the bigger picture, for the simple reason that fossil fuels will eventually run out, and in the meantime they contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and pollutants into our atmosphere. The linear nature of fossil fuels—dig it up, refine it, burn it, find more, do it again—is a narrow, limited path. It sustains itself with short-term gains that fund its next steps and nothing more. In the meantime, they contribute greenhouse gases that appear to have thrown our planet’s carbon cycle off kilter, hampering its ability to regulate temperature within the narrow range it needs to sustain life. We’ve become inured to the smog, the smells, and the toxic chemicals, that come with burning of fossil fuels.

We’ve all gotten so used to the use of fossil fuels that it’s hard for us to think another way. It’s a frightening thought, but we’re at a crossroads in the world as I write this—the Coronavirus pandemic has caused many of us to change our lifestyle for a time and with it, perhaps there’s been a recalibration of priorities. While this shift is hopefully temporary, it should illustrate to all of us how much we are capable of change, when it matters. Look at how the air is cleared up in India, or LA, or anywhere else. It’s a vivid example that driving cars, trucks, planes makes pollution, it isn’t just about GHGs. The ability to alter our way of thinking is key to our survival through this crisis, and our adaptability is always our biggest advantage.

But we don’t just turn on a dime. Humanity learns to change the way we act based on our morals, our individual standards of behavior concerning what is acceptable for us to do. Each of us has a moral code—our personal ethics, which guides the way we live. In short, we feel bad when we go against it. When that happens, maybe our collective conscience makes it a little harder to sleep at night. In the case of the Coronavirus pandemic, we limit the number of people we contact to curtail the spread of the disease. It’s the right thing to do, to help protect members of the population with the highest risk of dangerous infection.

That same adaptability is the kind of wholesale rethink we need to take on the environmental crisis. We need to take our thinking back to basics. Survivability is what you live when you’re not sure if you’ll see another day. You eat all the berries off the bush to stave off that gnawing hunger, without a care of what you’ll find on the bush the next day, let alone what the next guy who comes along will find. Sustainability is when you save some of the berries to share, and others to plant, so you can grow more berry bushes, to feed more people.

When it comes to transportation fuels, we have to ask ourselves, isn’t there a better way?   Can’t we reduce the pollution, and reduce the GHGs? Our economies depend on planes, trains, trucks, and cars. If we take away freedom of movement like we are seeing with the COVID-19 lockdowns, sure we see the benefit of clean air, but we aren’t free, and that lack of freedom is not acceptable. We will have to start burning fossil fuels and polluting again as we go back to work. If you’re like me, freedom to move, to drive a car, to travel is now more cherished than ever—we know what it’s like to lose it. It’s not OK. We’ve also been reminded that by not burning fossil fuels, the air can clean up. Our society is set up for freedom of movement, of freedom to travel. We can have clean air, and freedom. 

How so? By changing the source of carbon for transportation fuels, and getting them into the market. Companies like ours, and a few others, have learned how to do it. Gasoline and jet fuel made from renewable carbon can avoid the particulates and the sulfur that made air pollution, and still have net zero emissions through the whole lifecycle. The technology exists, we’ve proven it.

I want to see the world with cleaner air. I want to see solutions to pollution and GHGs broadly adopted. But to do so, will we value clean air? Will we value the elimination of GHGs? Or will we just continue on as before? Oil is going to be cheap for a while. We will soon be polluted again. Maybe we should take COVID-19 as wake-up call. A call that is encouraging, that shows us that we can make change. Let’s value our air quality, let’s value the GHG reductions that are possible more broadly. Let’s change. Let’s demand change.