Fuel Guidelines, Fuel Consumption, and Climate Change

See if you can fill in the blanks: “A debate has been created after a paper was published in the BLANK Journal, suggesting the new BLANK Guidelines… are biased and based on an incomplete survey of current studies.” That quote from Digital Journal, referring to the British Medical Journal and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, could just as plausibly have been about a different journal and the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Arguments over revised U.S. Dietary Guidelines (due the end of this year) are getting as heated as those over greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations affecting power generation. Both sets of guidelines (the official designation for the CPP) concern the fuels we consume, and the development of both raised issues of how that consumption is related to climate change.

Although most adults can choose the food they eat, they cannot, for the most part, decide what fuels are used to generate their electricity. In the U.S., utility commissions as well as state and federal agencies represent individuals in matters concerning what types of generation are allowed to be developed. But whenever there’s any sort of regulation, even “guidelines,” there are those who argue against the specifics—or against regulation in general. I’m not in the latter camp; the Volkswagen emissions-testing “defeat” mechanism is just the latest example of why we cannot simply trust the market or corporations to always do what’s safe or legal. But in some respects, the details of government guidelines may not always matter as much as critics claim.

The Sustainability Issue

One argument against the CPP is that the Environmental Protection Agency is misusing the Clean Air Act to compel GHG emissions reductions. A similar argument was raised with regard to U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

These guidelines are updated every five years, and this time around, there was discussion about whether sustainability should be a consideration in what foods were recommended. When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee proposed earlier this year that Americans eat a less-resource-intensive diet, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) fought back, arguing that, pound for pound, meats, though they require large amounts of land and water to grow grains for feed, deliver more nutrition and calories than grains and fruit—an argument similar to the one that fossil fuels have higher energy density than wind and solar energy.

In the end, sustainability was left to other government programs and initiatives. Had it been included, the debate would quickly have reached the boiling point, as it would have pitted the meat and dairy industries against grain and vegetable producers. That’s because different foods require different amounts of resources and result in different environmental consequences, from water pollution to GHG emissions. The production of all foods, even organic ones, has environmental effects. (The same dynamics are true of electricity sources.)

Water consumption is an obvious example. A single almond, according to NAMI, can require up to 2.8 liters of water (which sounds more dramatic than when expressed as 0.74 gallons); but that’s still less, on a per-calorie comparison basis, than what’s needed for beef production. Then there are the direct and indirect GHG emissions—from the obvious emissions of methane from cattle to emissions resulting from tilling fields used for vegetable and grain production.

There is, however, a significant difference between establishing GHG emissions guidelines for already-regulated industries, on matters where individuals have limited power of choice, and making GHG reductions or other sustainability goals a criterion for dietary guidelines whose primary purpose is to encourage individual humans’ health. Reducing the environmental impacts of our food choices may be a worthy goal, but it’s more appropriately addressed as an educational (and perhaps moral) issue.

Personal Choice Overrides Guidelines

Telling Americans what they should or should not eat is far more likely to prompt a response than guidelines shaping how fuels are used in power generation. (Google Bloomberg soda.) For some, including children who eat school-provided meals, those choices are already curtailed. One mother I know was aghast this fall when her eldest, just starting kindergarten, was being fed breakfast items far higher in sugar than anything she would have served at home. Yet, the school system dietician’s choices are based on U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

School menus aside, for the majority of Americans, dietary guidelines are less powerful than they seem. Freedom to choose what we eat can be as personally meaningful as one’s choice of music. Although I know individuals who actually are gluten-intolerant, and those who have food allergies or medical reasons for avoiding certain foods, many have adopted low-carb/high-fat or vegan or raw diets for purely personal reasons—whether they be weight loss, religious beliefs, or philosophical positions.

Most days, my attitude toward dueling dietary choices is to live and let live. In a world where millions still lack sufficient access to nutritious food, most arguments about food choices seem like shallow “First-World problems.” Whatever happened to “everything in moderation”? That sounds a lot like the “all of the above” energy plans put forth by both federal and state leaders. Just one example: New Mexico’s Republican governor recently endorsed an all-of-the-above energy plan for her fossil fuel–rich state, which also is rich in solar and wind resources.

Regardless of dietary guidelines, most adults will continue to follow their own paths—from paleo to vegan to locavore. Their choices will be shaped by a stew of science, guidelines, marketing, doctor’s orders, beliefs, and taste buds. The story’s not much different for power. When given a choice—which is becoming more common with dropping prices for renewables and battery storage—consumers large and small will opt to consume specific fuels based on a mix of price, convenience, marketing, beliefs, and self-image, so it shouldn’t be surprising that increasing numbers are choosing renewables for climate-change reasons.

As for me, I’m in the omnivore, all-of-the-above camp, provided everything is in sensible portions and produced as sustainably as possible. Now, it’s time for my mid-afternoon apple, almond, and chocolate break. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.