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Brooklyn Law Review

Abstract

As government actors and the private sector attempt to decarbonize the economy, the role of life cycle analysis (also know as life cycle assessment or LCA) has become increasingly important. In this essay, we explore the use of life cycle analysis in the transportation sector to assess its influence in federal and state policy efforts to move to a low-carbon energy future. We first define life cycle analysis and explain its use in evaluating the environmental impacts of all stages of a product from production, to use, to disposal. We then review the use of life cycle analysis in considering the carbon emissions associated with different types of biofuels, particularly ethanol, which now makes up 10% of every gallon of gasoline sold in the United States as result of federal mandates. We then discuss the increasing application of life cycle analysis to electric vehicles (EVs), which compares the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use, and disposal of EVs with conventional automobiles, and evaluates the sources of electricity used to power EVs in different parts of the country. We conclude by reflecting on the ways in which life cycle analysis can be used effectively to guide policymakers to incentivize the development of environmentally beneficial products and technologies. For instance, if today’s life cycle analysis had been used to evaluate corn ethanol in the 1990s and early 2000s, policymakers may have paused before creating the significant incentives and mandates that continue to support a fuel that many experts consider to be more environmentally harmful than petroleum. At the same time, however, there are risks in relying too heavily on life cycle analysis when information gaps exist in comparing alternative fuels and vehicles with traditional fuels and vehicles. Such information deficits may result in creating disincentives for potentially beneficial new products and technologies that, with sufficient support, may be critical to meeting decarbonization goals in the transportation sector and the economy as a whole.