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Life Cycle Regulation of Transportation Fuels: Uncertainty and its Policy Implications

  • Author(s): Plevin, Richard Jay
  • Advisor(s): O'Hare, Michael
  • et al.

Many national and regional governments have been promoted biofuels as a strategy to mitigate the climate change effects of the existing petroleum-based transportation system. New performance-based policies such as the California Low-Carbon Fuel Standard and the US Renewable Fuel Standard use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to estimate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to determine the life cycle global warming effects of each fuel production pathway. However, the current generation of policies have largely ignored the highly uncertain and often subjective nature of LCA assessments. Considering these uncertainties raises questions about the appropriateness of using an LCA-based estimate as a performance metric in public policy.

The objective of this dissertation is to characterize--qualitatively and quantitatively--the many data, parameter, model, and decision uncertainties inherent to estimates of the life cycle climate effects of transportation fuels, and to critically examine the robustness of these policies to these uncertainties. As demonstrated herein, LCA-based fuel regulations may accomplish much less than expected, and have the potential to cause more climate change than a business-as-usual scenario absent biofuels. Alternative policies that acknowledge uncertainty and respect the limitations of LCA--and thus of our understanding of the benefits of LCA-based policies--can be more robust

in achieving GHG reductions.

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